Middle East

Brahimi calls for cease-fire during Eid

Combination photo of members of the Free Syrian Army using a catapult to launch a homemade bomb during clashes with pro-government soldiers in the city of Aleppo, October 15, 2012. (REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)

DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi Monday appealed for a cease-fire in Syria, after Iran proposed a “transition period” that would see embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad stay in power to oversee presidential elections.

Brahimi made the call during a visit to neighboring Iraq, after holding talks a day earlier with the leaders of Iran, Syria’s closest ally.

Late last week, Brahimi visited Saudi Arabia and Turkey and was scheduled to arrive in Egypt later Monday to meet Egyptian officials.

The veteran Algerian diplomat suggested the truce be held during the Eid holiday, which starts around Oct. 25 and lasts several days, to “help create an environment that would allow a political process to develop.”

“Brahimi has appealed to the Iranian authorities to assist in achieving a cease-fire in Syria during the forthcoming Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest holidays celebrated by the Muslims around the world,” a statement from the envoy said.

But Brahimi denied a claim by Ahmed Ramadan, an official from the main opposition Syrian National Council, that he sought a peacekeeping force.

“You’ve read that I have asked for peacekeeping,” Brahimi told reporters in Baghdad. “I haven’t.”

Iran has proposed a political transition supervised by Assad, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdolahian said, an idea likely to be rejected by Syria’s opposition.

Abdolahian outlined the plan on Arabic-language Al-Alam television, describing a “transitional period leading to the holding of presidential and legislative elections ... all of which will be carried out under the supervision of President Assad.”

Brahimi said he welcomed all input.

“I thank you for the proposals and as I told you there are some ideas in your proposals which can help by adding to that forwarded by other nations who are also important with regard to the Syrian situation,” he added.

There was no immediate response to the political proposal from either side fighting on the ground Monday, where government bombardments and clashes with rebels continued in several Syrian cities and in the countryside.

A cease-fire brokered by Brahimi’s predecessor Kofi Annan in April fell apart after a few days and Annan later quit his job in frustration. Since then the uprising in the country has become even more militarized and it is unclear whether either side is willing to cede territorial gains made in recent months.

Briefing the Security Council in New York, U.S. Political Affairs Chief at the U.N., Jeffrey Feltman, said that for any cease-fire to succeed, “this must be a collective effort by all inside Syria, in the region and beyond.”

Feltman also said all governments should stop supplying weapons and giving military assistance to any side in the conflict. “Human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture and summary executions continue unabated. The voices of the peaceful protests that emerged so proudly last year have receded in the tremor of fighting,” he added.

The conflict has claimed more than 33,000 lives since March 2011, according to the latest toll by the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory said 50 people had been killed across the country Monday, nearly half of them soldiers. That followed a death toll of 170 Sunday. Daily death tolls routinely surpass 100 people. In some of the most serious incidents of violence across the country, the Observatory said two rebel-held districts in northeast Aleppo, Al-Shaar and Karm al-Jabal, came under heavy bombardment from Assad’s forces. It also reported clashes in the district of Jdeideh, just north of the ancient citadel in Syria’s biggest city.

At least 16 soldiers were killed around two checkpoints near Aleppo. Near one checkpoint, troops killed the driver of a vehicle carrying three tons of explosives that he intended to detonate, a security source told AFP. Rebels also claimed to have shot down a Russian made MiG jet in Taane, near Aleppo and captured the pilot.

Aleppo has seen intense conflict for the past three months, including in the city’s UNESCO-listed historic heart, with damage to both the ancient covered market, or souk, and the landmark 13th century Umayyad Mosque.

In northwestern Idlib province, government warplanes bombed several towns Monday after rebels surrounded an army garrison close to a northwestern town in the latest push to seize more territory near the border with Turkey a day earlier, opposition activists said. Several hundred soldiers were trapped in the siege of a base in Urum al-Sughra, on the main road between Aleppo and Turkey.

On the border with Turkey’s Hatay province, the rebels appeared to have a tentative hold after four days of heavy fighting around the town of Azmarin.

Giving an overview of the military situation, analyst Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London said the rebels, boosted by weapons from Gulf States and gaining in fighting skills, were possibly doing better. Assad’s forces were increasingly stretched and taking more casualties.

On the other hand, opposition forces have not coalesced and formed a reliable chain of command connecting local groups.

It would be important if the rebels are able to maintain their block of the north-south highway between Damascus and Aleppo but the lack of cover on the roads makes them vulnerable to airstrikes, Joshi said.

If they can hold the road, the government’s helicopter fleet would be strained as it would be diverted from an attack role by the need to resupply stranded towns. The “game-changer” could be Turkey, Joshi added.

Turkey’s confrontation with Syria deepened in the past two weeks due to cross-border shelling and escalated on Oct. 10 when Ankara forced down a Syrian airliner en route from Moscow, accusing it of carrying munitions for Assad’s military.

Ankara said Sunday it had closed Turkish airspace to Syrian planes and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted the cargo they had seized was “war equipment.” Damascus has denied that claim and responded by banning Turkish planes from its airspace.

Turkey Monday ordered an Armenian plane flying to Aleppo to land and searched its cargo. The plane was allowed to continue on its way after officials confirmed it was carrying humanitarian aid, a Turkish deputy prime minister said.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, meanwhile, visited Luxembourg Sunday for talks with his EU counterparts. “We discussed Syria really in all its dimensions with Mr. Lavrov last night,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday. “I can’t say that we made any progress.”

Russia and China have repeatedly blocked action at the U.N. Security Council against the Assad regime. Against the deadlock, The EU imposed a new package of unilateral sanctions Monday, its 19th since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 16, 2012, on page 1.




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