Middle East

Brahimi warns Syria election could torpedo talks

Abu Amara, a 26-year-old fighter from the Free Syrian Army, uses binoculars as he stands with his fellow fighters in old Aleppo March 13, 2014. Abu Amara lost his hand during clashes with the Syrian regime. (REUTERS/Mahmoud Hebbo)

UNITED NATIONS: The U.N-Arab League mediator for Syria warned Thursday that if the Syrian government goes ahead with presidential election, the opposition will probably refuse to participate in a new round of peace talks.

Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors that he asked members for their help in making sure that if and when there is a third round of talks in Geneva, “it will be a little bit more productive than the second one.”

Brahimi’s comments came as a Britain-based monitoring group said it had documented at least 146,000 lives lost during the conflict, with the actual toll expected to be considerably higher.

At the latest round of “Geneva II” talks last month, Brahimi wanted both sides to hold parallel talks on terrorism, which is a major concern for the government, and the establishment of a transitional governing body for Syria, agreed on by major powers at a Geneva conference in June 2012.

The opposition agreed to Brahimi’s plan, but according to two diplomats who listened to the closed briefing, Brahimi said the Syrian government used “delaying tactics” and insisted that the terrorism discussion be concluded before talks on a transitional government started. One diplomat quoted Brahimi as saying the Syrian government created the clear impression that it was not ready to discuss a transitional government.

The other diplomat said Brahimi asked the government and opposition delegations to discuss and reflect with their leaders, saying they need to be “better motivated” for a new round of talks.

Both diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because Thursday’s council meeting was closed.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari told reporters afterward that his government agreed to Brahimi’s agenda, but he insisted that combatting terrorists – as Syria calls the opposition fighters – is paramount and must be dealt with first.

“Anybody who would avoid dealing with combatting terrorism as a priority would mean he or she is behind the terrorists in Syria,” Jaafari said.

Luxembourg’s U.N. Ambassador Sylvie Lucas, the current council president, said that council members were unable to agree on a statement to the press though they all expressed support for a resumption of the Geneva talks “based on a genuine engagement of all parties involved” to implement the June 2012 communique, which calls for a transitional government with full executive powers.

Lucas indicated the dispute was over conducting parallel talks on terrorism and a transitional government, saying “some members” supported this approach by Brahimi. She said there was also a discussion of Brahimi’s view that elections would be “incompatible” with the Geneva negotiations.

One of the U.N. diplomats said Russia blocked the press statement because it referred to parallel talks on terrorism and a transitional government.

Brahimi addressed the Security Council soon after Syria’s parliament unanimously approved a new election law allowing multiple candidates to run for president and parliament.

Brahimi said he told the council, “If there is an election, my suspicion is that the opposition – all the oppositions – will probably not be interested in talking to the government.”

One diplomat said Brahimi used even stronger language in the council, telling members that presidential polls would “slam the door” to negotiations for the foreseeable future.

Both diplomats quoted Brahimi as saying he doubted very much that another seven years for Assad would put an end to the conflict or the suffering of the Syrian people.

Separately, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that over 146,000 people, more than a third of them civilians, have been killed in the uprising-turned-civil war which enters its fourth year this month.

The U.N. said in January it would stop updating the toll after it reached 100,000 as conditions on the ground made it impossible to make accurate estimates. Reuters could not verify the death toll of 146,065 published by the Observatory, an anti-government group which uses a network of sources across the country to document the violence.

The Observatory said it counted nearly 36,000 rebel fatalities, including fighters from the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, an Al-Qaeda splinter group that includes many foreign fighters.

It said more than 56,000 of those killed were from pro-Assad forces, including 332 from the Lebanese party Hezbollah and 459 Shiite fighters from other countries. But the group said the true toll on both sides was probably much higher – by perhaps more than 60,000.

Both sides try to hide their casualties, it said, making fighter death tolls very difficult to gauge.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2014, on page 1.




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