Middle East

Brahimi expected to hold talks with Assad, opposition

BEIRUT: Newly appointed U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he would meet Syrian President Bashar Assad and opposition members when he arrives in Damascus, the U.N. chief and his spokesman said Tuesday, for a mission already steeped in pessimism.

Brahimi, who was in Cairo amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in the Egyptian capital over Syria, is expected to travel to Damascus in the coming days, his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.

“Mr. Brahimi will go to Damascus in the next few days. He will meet with President Assad and other officials, officials from the opposition as well as representatives of civil society,” Fawzi said.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, told a news conference in Bern that Brahimi would meet with Syrian authorities “including President Assad, and he has already been engaged with the key stakeholders.”

Brahimi arrived in Cairo Sunday. He replaced Kofi Annan, who quit in August over divisions in the Security Council on the deadly violence that has gripped Syria for nearly 18 months.

Expectations for the visit – dubbed “mission impossible” by analysts – is low and the envoy’s comments have not added to a sense of optimism.

“We cannot expect miracles” he told a news conference Monday.

U.N. Security Council members the United States and Russia are at loggerheads over how to tackle the crisis.

Fighting between Assad forces and rebels, escalating assaults against rebellious neighborhoods across the country and increasingly fragmented opposition forces has ground to a bloody stalemate, and daily death tolls now average well above 100 people.

The U.N. refugee agency said the number of Syrians who have fled to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey now tops a quarter of a million people.

Spokesman Adrian Edwards said 253,106 people had registered or were awaiting registration as Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, plans for a new Egyptian-led initiative to bring together a regionally oriented alternative “contact group” of key stakeholder states, including staunch Damascus ally Iran, alongside U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt advanced Tuesday after a preliminary meeting of the group in Cairo Monday.

Iran welcomed the initiative, but in an apparent move to bolster it’s position in the group, suggested it be expanded to include allies Iraq and Venezuela. Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdolahian said on his ministry’s website that Egypt’s offer to host another session at ministerial level “is a positive step.”

He also welcomed Cairo’s stated goal of trying to stop Syria’s bloodshed through “consensus” in the group, and based on policies to bring about a cease-fire, maintain Syrian sovereignty and reject any foreign intervention.

Egypt said Monday it planned to bring the foreign ministers of the group’s members together in the coming days.

Sources familiar with the initiative told The Daily Star the group would work to agree on a transition model that preserved the regional interests of all parties.

The U.S., which has called for Assad to stand down, has remained vehemently opposed to any Iranian involvement in crisis talks on Syria and accuses Tehran of aiding the Syrian regime with military support and funding.

Separately, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, on his first visit to Egypt since Mohammad Mursi became president is to hold talks on Syria, his office said.

On the ground Tuesday, violence killed at least 36 people, according to early tolls compiled by the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

There was renewed government bombardment in Aleppo in the southern Kalasseh and Bustan al-Qasr districts, and Suleiman al-Halabi in the center, the Observatory reported, adding that clashes had broken out in the mainly Christian central Old City.

In Damascus, a blast rocked the western district of Mezzeh overnight, and pro-regime gunmen fought rebels in Barzeh, in the northeast, the Observatory said.

Fierce clashes broke out south of the capital in Tadamon and in nearby Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, the watchdog said.

And at least nine people, including a woman and child, were killed in shelling of houses in the town of Kfar Zeita in the central province of Hama.

In Deir al-Zour in the far east, warplanes bombarded the town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, killing four people, including three women.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 12, 2012, on page 1.




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