Middle East

Brahimi raises specter of spillover

BEIRUT: International mediator on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, reiterated his warning that Syria’s civil war risks spilling across borders and appealed again for a temporary truce to help calm 19-months of conflict.

The U.N.-Arab League envoy has proposed that both President Bashar Assad’s forces and rebel fighters seeking his overthrow hold fire during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha that starts next week.

Brahimi said Assad’s regime must take the lead in implementing a cease-fire, saying rebel representatives have assured him they will observe the truce if the government takes the first step.

“The Syrian people are burying hundreds of people each day, so if they bury fewer people during the days of the holiday, this could be the start of Syria’s return from the dangerous situation that it ... is continuing to slip toward,” he told reporters Wednesday in Beirut after talks with Lebanese leaders.

Syrian authorities, who blame rebels for the failure of an April cease-fire plan, guardedly welcomed Brahimi’s proposal but said any initiative must be respected by both sides.

And in rare agreement, Turkey, one of Assad’s harshest critics, and Iran, one of his strongest allies, both said they backed the plan.

At least 30,000 people have been killed in the uprising, which began with peaceful demonstrations and now pits mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against an Alawite president.

There are fears of broader Middle East sectarian conflict between Sunni powers sympathetic to the rebels and Shiites who back Assad.

“This crisis cannot remain within Syrian borders indefinitely. Either it will be addressed or it will increase ... and be all-consuming,” Brahimi said.

The British-based opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 90 people had been killed in Syria by late afternoon Wednesday, after 150 people died the day before.

The death toll has topped 1,000 a week for at least two months as divided world powers have condemned the bloodshed in what has largely become a stalemate, but failed to agree on a political solution.

Sunday, Brahimi appealed to leaders in Iran to support a proposal for a cease-fire to mark Eid al-Adha, expected to begin at dusk on Oct. 25.

“For us, there isn’t any sacrifice too great if the blood stops flowing in Syria even for a day, an hour,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a news conference in Ankara, saying he had discussed the plan with his Iranian counterpart.

“The Arab League, Turkey and Iran have declared their support for this proposal,” he said, adding he expected those who backed the plan to make a statement Friday.

Iran’s state news agency quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying Iran backed the temporary cease-fire plan and believed free elections were the right way forward.

Syrian officials have questioned whether the disparate rebels, who agreed on a joint leadership Tuesday to encourage states to provide them more powerful weapons, could commit to or honor any ceasefire deal.

But Brahimi said opposition figures had told him any cease-fire by Assad would be reciprocated immediately.

“We heard from everyone we met in the opposition, and everyone [else] we met that, if the government stops using violence, ‘We will respond to this directly,’” he said.

On the battlefront Wednesday, rebels shot down a helicopter gunship as the army fought to recapture the strategic northwestern town of Maaret al-Numan, according to the Observatory.

Amateur video posted on YouTube showed a helicopter spiraling downwards and then exploding, as onlookers cried: “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for God is greatest.

Warplanes targeted a rebel blockade of a highway in Idlib province which has halted regime efforts to reinforce Aleppo, a theatre of intense fighting for three months.

The early morning air raids targeted Maaret al-Numan and nearby villages, which fell to the rebels a week ago as they pushed to create a buffer zone abutting Turkey, the Observatory said.

Amateur footage of rebels using shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles have emerged in the past few days, and France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that heavy weapons acquired by the insurgents have forced Assad’s air force to bomb rebel-held areas from high altitude.

“There are now weapons that are forcing the planes to fly extremely high, and so the strikes are less accurate,” Fabius said before meeting in Paris with civilian members of rebel councils that run areas outside the regime’s control. France began channeling money and humanitarian aid to rebel-held parts of Syria in August to support self-rule and try to create an alternative to the Damascus government.

However, the French plan falls well short of the foreign-protected safe havens the opposition says it needs.

Russia, which sold Syria arms worth $1 billion last year, and China have vetoed three resolutions favored by Western powers condemning Syrian authorities and opening the way to U.N. sanctions on Damascus.

Fabius said Moscow’s stance would only cement chaos in Syria, adding that he had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that “If you continue to oppose a change of regime, then the extremists risk taking control.”

Moscow denies trying to prop up Assad, who allows Russia to maintain a naval supply facility in Tartus that is its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union.

But Russia says Syria’s crisis must be resolved without foreign interference, particularly military intervention.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin Wednesday defended its arms trade, insisting only the United Nations could dictate restrictions on arms sales.

Without mentioning Syria directly, Putin defended Russia’s right to trade weapons with whomever it wanted.

“We operate on the premise that the only basis for limiting weapons supplies to any country is U.N. Security Council sanctions,” Putin said as he opened a government meeting on military-technical cooperation.

This week Turkey accused Russia of delivering “war equipment” to the Syrian government on board a Syrian plane, after the Turkish authorities forced the plane to land last week and seized the suspect cargo.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the cargo contained radar equipment and was being delivered legally, demanding that it be returned to its rightful owners.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Damascus hoped Brahimi’s talks, including with countries that back the rebels, could herald “something which leads to the success of a constructive initiative.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 18, 2012, on page 1.

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