The U.N.-Arab League envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, made it clear to Saudi Arabia's king Abdallah Bin Abdelaziz Al Saud Friday that he believes the only way out of the current conflict in Syria is to support U.N.-backed negotiations between the Syrian government and rebels.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have served as the Syrian rebels' chief military patrons, while Iran and Russia have been arming the Syrian government. Brahimi is now headed to visit Turkey and possibly Iran, to convince those governments to cut off military assistance to their proxies.
Brahimi told the Saudi monarch that Syria's deepening crisis "would not be resolved through military means, but rather through a political process that would meet the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," according to a statement issued after Friday's meeting by Brahimi's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi.
Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and veteran U.N. troubleshooter, is trying to convince the Syrian government, the rebels, and their key foreign backers that talks provide the only way out of a civil war that threatens to engulf the region in a spasm of sectarian violence. So far, that message has not gained much traction.
The conflict has already begun to spill across the border into neighboring countries, including Turkey, which in recent days has launched a series of artillery strikes into Syrian territory in response to Syrian mortar attacks in Turkey.
Following Friday's meeting in Jeddah, Brahimi's spokesman said that the crisis in Syria "was deteriorating with each passing day, with untold suffering for the Syrian people. They agreed on the dire need to stop the bloodshed and provide humanitarian aid to the more than 2.5 million Syrians inside the country who were affected by the fighting, and the over 348,000 refugees registered in neighboring countries."
It remained unclear whether the Saudi leader made any promises to Brahimi. But a senior U.N. official told Turtle Bay it was unlikely that the rebels' Gulf patrons, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would cut off their military support.
Brahimi's diplomatic tour comes weeks after another Gulf power, Qatar, expressed frustration with the U.N.'s diplomatic efforts and counseled escalating the military response. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly last month, Qatar's emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, proposed the establishment of an Arab intervention force to halt the bloodshed in Syria.
The Qataris are hoping that the United States will become more amenable to supporting military intervention after the election, something that Obama administration officials have said is unlikely.
But Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, has promised to ensure that heavy arms find their way into "moderate" opposition hands, though he has declined to endorse the direct U.S. provision of such weapons.
"There are two scenarios," the senior U.N. official said. "Either you believe in the scenario inside or outside Syria that this can be solved by military means or you believe in de-escalation and the political process. They [the United States and its allies] evidently believe in the first alternative. Lakhdar Brahimi and we [the U.N.] would of course rather go in the direction of the second option."
Brahimi and U.N. officials still believe that the only way out of the impasse is for the United States and Russia to strike a deal on a political transition in Syria. "You have the risk that this conflict could have serious repercussions on both Turkey, as you see every day now, on Jordan, on Lebanon, and on Iraq -- and it might even have repercussions on the Kurdish issues,' said the senior U.N. official. "It would be a great step forward if we could see movement of the key actors in the P5 [the permanent five members of the Security Council] coming closer together."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.