U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to present the U.N. Security Council tomorrow with a darkly pessimistic assessment of peace prospects in Syria, where political repression and civil war have left more 60,000 people dead, according to U.N. estimates, and threatened to plunge the Middle East into a wider sectarian conflict, according to U.N. diplomats and officials.
Since his appointment last August, Brahimi has promoted a plan for a negotiated settlement between the Syrian government and the armed opposition that would lead to the establishment of a transitional government headed by opposition leaders and members of Assad's security establishment. Brahimi has invested his hopes and prestige on brokering a deal between the United States and Russia to compel the warring parties to accept peace.
But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this month rebuffed Brahimi's plan in a public address to Syrians, denouncing the armed oppositions as "terrorists" and "criminals" that needed to be confronted with arms. "They are the enemies of God, and they will go to hell," said Assad. The armed opposition has also made it clear it is not willing to negotiate as long as Assad is in power. And talks between the United States and Russia, meanwhile, are stalled over the fate of Assad.
Brahimi was "quite negative" about the prospect for a negotiated settlement in discussions with Security Council diplomats during the past week. He told them that he has no intention of outlining a specific new plan to break the current impasse, according to a council diplomat.
"The guy is stuck; he has no good news," added a senior U.N. colleague. "Everything he has tried to do is not working."
The U.N. assessment of the fighting has evolved since early December, when senior U.N. officials believed that Assad's regime was on the verge of collapse. Today, the balance of power has returned to a "military stalemate," according to a senior U.N. official.
The official said that Brahimi continues to believe that a negotiated political settlement presents the greatest hope of averting a chaotic collapse of Syria's institutions. And he will continue to promote it. But he "doesn't hide the fact" that the two sides are equally committed to fighting it out.
"The picture therefore is very grim," the official said.
Brahimi remains committed to pressing the U.N. Security Council's key powers, principally the United States and Russia, to coalesce behind a common position. Ironically, the official said, Brahimi believes that the two governments' assessments of the crisis are not that far apart, but it has been difficult to bridge the gap.
Moscow has expressed fresh doubts about Assad's prospects for survival, but it has shown little willingness to join the United States and other Western powers in ratcheting up pressure in the U.N. Security Council on Assad to step aside.
In an interview this weekend with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Assad may have made "a fatal mistake" by failing to move earlier to reach a political deal with the "moderate opposition" in Syria. "I think that with every day, with every week, with every month, the chances of him surviving are becoming less and less," said Medvedev.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov -- generally a more reliable barometer of the Russian policy -- insisted that Moscow, Damascus's longstanding military ally, was "never enchanted with this regime. And we never supported it," he told reporters. "And all of our actions, aimed at helping to fulfill the Geneva agreement to form the transitional body, only confirm that we want the situation to stabilize, and the creation of the conditions that Syrians can themselves decide their fate -- of their own people, their own state, their own leadership."
Western diplomats said that while they welcome Lavrov's remarks they say Russian officials have previously distanced themselves from their long-time ally only to come to his defense in the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow has blocked three attempts by the West to threaten to punish Assad.
"We noticed the [Russian] comments and we're pleased to see them," said a council diplomat. "But it's not something we haven't seen before. If [President Vladimir] Putin had said them we'd be reacting quite differently."
"Our assessment at this point in time is pretty sobering: there has been no movement by Assad, nor by the Russians," added a Western diplomat. "They have not come forward with anything to support Brahimi."
In a sign of big power discord at the United Nations, the permanent five members of the Security Council will hold off on plans to meet Brahimi until after he has briefed the council. (A dinner has been scheduled for Tuesday night.) Diplomats said that the big five would likely have met before if there was any hope of forging a common position.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said it was not enough to leave it to the Syrians to resolve the crisis on their own. At a Paris conference of the Syrian National Coalition, Fabius said that the international community must bolster the opposition's moderate forces lest Islamic extremists take charge in Syria.
"We must give the Syrian opposition the means to support its people, urgently and tangibly," he said. "Because let's be clear: faced with the collapse of a state and a society, there is a risk of extremist groups gaining ground. We cannot let a revolt, which began as a peaceful and democratic protest, break down into a clash of militias. It is in the interests of the Syrian people and all of us."
Back at the U.N., there was growing despair about the chances of a peaceful settlement.
"We are extremely pessimistic of any chance of any political settlement," said another Security Council diplomat. "This is a conflict which will be resolved over the very long term. We know both sides have decided to fight to the death."
"Brahimi has good intentions but its been very clear from the beginning that his mission was impossible," the official said. "Not sure he will last very long in his current position, not because he will be kicked out but simply because he will draw the conclusion that it's a desperate situation."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.