UNITED NATIONS: U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told the U.N. Security Council Monday that the war in Syria is worsening but said President Bashar Assad only wants a return to the “old Syria.”
Brahimi painted a grim picture of the 18-month conflict, reporting on food shortages, the “medieval” torture of detainees, and damage to all but 200 of Syria’s 2,200 schools.
The veteran envoy, who took over as envoy from former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Sept. 1, also appealed to the divided 15-nation Security Council for united backing for his efforts.
The Syrian war has divided the Security Council, where Russia and China have already wielded their veto powers three times to resist international action demanded by Western and many Arab states.
Brahimi told the 15-nation council that Assad’s government estimates there are 5,000 foreign fighters in the conflict that it increasingly portrays as a “foreign conspiracy,” a diplomat inside the closed meeting told AFP.
He said Assad “knows that something must change,” according to a second envoy in the meeting.
Assad, however, only wants to return to “the old Syria” which he and his father have ruled for more than 40 years, Brahimi was quoted as saying.
The former Algerian foreign minister, who briefed the council on his recent talks with Assad in Damascus, told diplomats that the torture of detainees has become “routine,” and that people were now afraid to go to hospitals that are in the hands of government forces.
The envoy estimated that 1.5 million people have now fled their homes and said Syria faces growing food shortages because harvests have been ruined by the fighting between government forces and opposition rebels. He said more than 2,000 schools have been damaged and that scores of teachers are among the dead.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said after meeting Brahimi in New York: “The situation in Syria is grave. We need to do everything we can to end the violence and the killing of so many innocent people.”
“Germany supports the work of Mr. Brahimi in his very difficult job,” Westerwelle told reporters. “Germany will continue to press for a united stance of the Security Council” on the conflict.
Westerwelle welcomed the “clear position” of Arab leaders condemning the conflict, highlighting particularly the stance of Egypt’s President Mohammad Mursi.
“I hope ... this will serve as a wake-up call to those who still hesitate to denounce the violence caused by the regime in Syria,” the German minister said.
Despite the growing doubts about the chances of any peace plan, Westerwelle insisted that political efforts to end the conflict must continue.
“We have to avoid ... this conflict in Syria setting on fire one country after another,” he said.
The Syria conflict is expected to dominate the annual U.N. General Assembly debate of world leaders that starts Tuesday. U.S. President Barack Obama, who arrived in New York and will be one of the first speakers, is expected to lead international attacks on the Assad government.
“His speech is likely to be sharply worded,” said Richard Gowan of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
“In what will probably be his last major international engagement before November’s elections, he has a chance to scold Russia for its behavior over Syria,” Gowan said.
But diplomats say that Russia, which maintains a naval facility in Syria, appears determined to resist international pressure over its ally. Neither Russia nor China is sending senior leaders to the U.N. General Assembly.
In addition to the speeches by world leaders, the conflict is expected to dominate a U.N. Security Council debate Wednesday on links with the Arab League.
The European Union is expected to launch a humanitarian appeal for Syria, and the Friends of Syria group is to meet in New York Friday.
The U.N. and Western officials have accused Iran of supplying weapons to Syria’s pro-government forces, while Syria’s government has accused Qatar and Saudi Arabia of arming rebels determined to topple Assad.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking to reporters in New York, rejected the charge that Iran was sending arms to Syria.
“The so-called news that you alluded to has been denied vehemently, officially,” Ahmadinejad said in a response to a question. “We seek peace in Syria. We like and love both sides ... We see both sides equally as our brothers.
“In Syria the intervention and meddling from outside have made conditions that much tougher. We must help to quell the violence and help ... [facilitate] a national dialogue.”
A U.N. Security Council panel of independent experts that monitors sanctions against Iran has uncovered several examples of Iran transferring arms to Syria. The U.S. and Britain say they are providing non-lethal assistance to Syria’s rebels such as communications equipment, but not arms.
The London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said that 70 people were killed in fighting and violence that raged throughout the country, of whom 38 were civilians, 10 were rebel fighters and 22 were regime forces.
Aircraft flattened a residential building in the northern city of Aleppo, killing a family of five, including three children, while two other youths died in other violence, the Observatory said.
A sign of the worsening humanitarian situation emerged in Jordan, where anti-riot police were called in again to quell a protest by angry Syrians at a refugee camp after they torched a tent and destroyed property, a leading charity said.
“Around 1,000 refugees demonstrated in protest at their living conditions in Zaatari camp,” in the north near the border with Syria, said Zayed Hammad, head of the Ketab and Sunna Society, which provides aid to tens of thousands of refugees.
“They said they want to go home. They destroyed offices of the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization, torched a tent and attacked a Moroccan field hospital,” Hammad told AFP.
He said anti-riot police “fired tear gas to break up the demonstration.”
“They were some injuries” and ambulances rushed the wounded to hospital, he added.
Police were not immediately available for comment.