BEIRUT: International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Damascus Monday at the end of a Middle East tour to promote a Syrian peace conference, as the U.N. said the regime was on target to meet its first chemical weapons deadline.
In an interview published Monday, Brahimi said he believed Assad could contribute to the transition to a “new” Syria, but not as the country’s leader.
“Many of those around [Assad] believe his candidacy [for a new presidential term in 2014] is a fact. He considers this an absolute right ... He thinks above all of completing his mandate,” the veteran Algerian diplomat said in an interview in Paris with the Jeune Afrique website.
However, “what history teaches us is that after a crisis like this there is no going back. President Assad could therefore usefully contribute to the transition from the Syria of before, that of his father [the late President Hafez Assad] and himself, to what I call the new Republic of Syria.”
Brahimi said the U.S.-Russian accord to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal had transformed Assad from a “pariah” into a “partner” and convinced his supporters even more of his ability to prevail.
Ahead of his arrival in Syria, Brahimi visited capitals across the Middle East to discuss plans for the Geneva II meeting, tentatively set for Nov. 23, to try to halt more than two-and-a-half years of bloodshed in Syria.
But opposition forces have not yet decided whether they will attend and Gulf Arab states backing the Syrian rebels have soured on the talks after Brahimi said Saturday that their rival Iran, Assad’s main regional ally, should join the international conference.
Brahimi met Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Damascus Monday but there was no word on whether Assad would see him. Syrian state media did not refer to his arrival in the capital.
A senior Turkish official said the envoy did not pushed for any deal on his tour, remaining in “listening and watching mode” and leaving active negotiating to Moscow and Washington.
Saudi Arabia threatened to distance itself from the United States last week over its perceived inaction on Syria and its renewed efforts at reconciliation with Iran.
The diplomatic wrangling has made the Syrian opposition feel weaker and even more reluctant to consider attending Geneva II.
“All these issues are getting tangled up into the other. Like the Saudis, we are very afraid that the United States’ other interests in Iran will come at the cost of the Syrian cause,” said Samir Nashar, an executive member of the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition’s umbrella body abroad.
“If you ask me, this meeting won’t happen on Nov. 23. It won’t happen ever,” he said.
Syria’s political opposition in exile is facing mounting pressure from fighters on the ground to reject any negotiations that would not require Assad’s ouster.
Many of Syria’s main rebel brigades Saturday rejected any negotiations not based on Assad’s removal and said they would charge anyone who attended them with treason.
Assad and Iran have said they would only attend talks with no preconditions.
It is not clear how the United States and Russia, co-sponsors of the talks, can reconcile the conflicting demands of the various parties to enable the conference to convene.
Russia Monday issued a stinging rebuke to the rebels.
“It is outrageous that some of these extremist, terrorist organizations fighting government forces in Syria are starting to make threats,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in televised comments.“The threats are directed at those who have the courage to attend the proposed Geneva conference being offered by Russia and the United States with the entire world’s support.”
Syria should meet a deadline to destroy chemical weapons equipment, despite inspectors having yet visited all sites, U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon said Monday.
“The functional destruction of the declared capacity of the Syrian Arab Republic is expected to be completed as planned by November 1,” Ban said in a report to the U.N. Security Council obtained by AFP.
Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the U.N. have, however, only been to 21 of the 23 sites because of the conflict.
“The two remaining sites have not been visited due to security reasons,” the OPCW, which won the Nobel Peace prize this month, said in a statement.
Visiting the sites has posed serious dangers for the inspectors with fighting continuing to rage.
Destruction of the chemical production and mixing facilities is the first major deadline of a tight timetable set out by the Security Council to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons by June 30 next year.
Syria still has an estimated 1,000 tons of chemicals to be destroyed and no plan has yet been agreed for the risky operation, officials said.
The inspectors “confirmed the functional destruction of the production and mixing and filling capabilities at all the sites” inspected so far, Ban said.