DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syria lashed out Monday at comments by new international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi describing the increasingly brutal 17-month conflict as a civil war.
Meanwhile, the main Syrian National Council opposition group demanded Brahimi apologize for comments suggesting it was too early to say that President Bashar Assad should step down.
Brahimi said Sunday that it is no longer a question of “preventing civil war” in the country, but rather halting what had already become the “cruellest kind of conflict.”
“To speak of civil war in Syria contradicts reality and is found only in the head of conspirators,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement published by the official SANA news agency.
“If the international envoy wants his mission to succeed and for the Syrian government to cooperate, he should stick to the framework approved by Syria,” the ministry warned.
“[Brahimi] must make serious efforts to win clear commitments from the states supporting these armed terrorist gangs that they will stop interfering in Syria’s internal affairs,” the ministry said.
Brahimi made his comments to France 24 Sunday, just two days after he was appointed to replace former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who quit as Syria envoy after the failure of his peace plan.
“There are a lot of people who say that we must avoid civil war in Syria. Me I believe that we are already there for some time now. What’s necessary is to stop the civil war and that is not going to be easy,” the Algerian diplomat said.
“The aspirations of the Syrian people must be satisfied,” he said, without saying whether the embattled Syrian president must step down from power.
But the Syrian ministry said: “It is not up to a state or an international envoy to talk about who runs Syria.”
A day earlier, a row erupted between Brahimi and the opposition SNC, who demanded he rescind the remarks made after the United Nations confirmed his new role, saying he could not ask Assad to resign because he did not “know enough about what is happening.” Annan had said it was clear the Syrian leader “must leave office.”
In an interview with Reuters news agency Friday, Brahimi was reported to have said it was too early for him to follow his predecessor in saying Assad must leave office.
“It’s much too early for me to say. I don’t know enough about what is happening,” the news agency quoted him as saying.
The SNC said Brahimi appeared to be giving Assad time to pursue his military crackdown.
“We call on the international envoy – who has not yet consulted with any Syrians on his appointment or his mission – to apologize to our people for taking this unacceptable position,” the SNC said in a statement. It said Brahimi showed “disregard for the blood of the Syrian people and their right of self-determination.”
“Whoever gives this criminal regime an opportunity to kill tens of thousands more Syrians and destroy what is left of Syria does not want to recognize the extent of the tragedy,” the council said in a statement.
In a later radio interview with Al-Jazeera television, Brahimi denied saying it was too soon for Assad to go and called for an apology from the Syrian opposition instead.
“What I have said is that it’s early for me to say anything related to the content of this issue. That’s what I said,” he said, speaking in Arabic.
“Regarding whether Assad has to step down or not, I didn’t say that it’s too early for him to step down.”
“I ask that [he] apologizes to me,” Brahimi said, referring to SNC spokesman George Sabra, who reiterated the call for an apology on Al-Jazeera.
Asked by France 24 Sunday whether Assad must step down, Brahimi responded: “Well, we’ll see, bear with me, give me some time to take up my responsibilities.
“The time has not come to talk about that, in my opinion.”