Brahimi rues 'lost opportunity' to end Syria crisis

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Media captionLakhdar Brahimi told Lyse that change in Syria 'has to be real'

When President Bashar al-Assad spoke defiantly on Sunday about a Syrian political solution without "foreign interference", many asked what was left of international mediation led by the UN and Arab League's envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.

"I don't know about my job," Mr Brahimi told me in Cairo. "But I don't know what it has done to his job."

In his first remarks since the rare presidential address, Mr Brahimi expressed regret at the "lost opportunity" to help resolve a deepening crisis which the UN says has already cost 60,000 lives and counting.

He said the Syrian leader had informed him, during their last meeting on 24 December, that "he was thinking of taking a new initiative". Mr Brahimi said he had told him that "it would have to be different from initiatives in the past... which had not changed the situation one iota".

But, Mr Brahimi remarked: "What has been said this time is not really different. It is perhaps even more sectarian, more one-sided."

He confirmed reports that the president had also told him that he was thinking of running in the next presidential election, which is scheduled for 2014.

The veteran 79-year-old UN trouble-shooter said, in careful diplomatic language: "I think what people are saying is a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long." President Assad succeeded his father Hafez in 2000 when he passed away after 29 years at the helm.

Had Mr Assad accepted the need for "transition", I asked. "I think he uses the word," replied Mr Brahimi, "but whether he means the transition that is needed is uncertain."

Mr Brahimi's comments highlight how a president, seen as weak and beleaguered by his enemies, is still confident and prepared to fight on.

On recent trips to Damascus, Mr Assad's senior advisers told me not only that he should run again for president, but that they also believed he would win.

Such remarks are dismissed with incomprehension and ridicule by opposition forces which now control growing swathes of territory, and hold President Assad responsible for the breathtaking loss of life.

In his speech, Mr Assad called on Syrians to fight the "murderous criminals" he claimed were responsible for the violence.

"There is no political solution at the moment," Mr Brahimi admitted. "Syrians are talking past each other, speaking two totally different languages."

He reiterated his view that if there was no political solution this year, by 2014 "there would be no Syria".

"The government will not win. The opposition may win in the long-term. But by the time they do, there will be no Syria, so what kind of victory is that?"

Growing anxiety

Mr Brahimi said regional powers, also dangerously split on this worsening crisis, were also unable to respond. He now planned to focus his efforts on the "outer ring" of the international community, he added.

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Image caption Many Syrians have fled the conflict in their country

On Friday, Mr Brahimi will head to Geneva for another meeting of what has come to be known as the "The Three Bs" - Brahimi, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and the US Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns.

Asked if there had been a breakthrough on that front, Mr Brahimi replied: "The fact we are talking in a trilateral formula is a step forward."

Russia and China have blocked three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, but Mr Brahimi said he still hoped to return to council at the end of this month. So far, it has been paralysed by the Syrian crisis, and in particular over the fate of President Assad in any political process.

Mr Brahimi's new strategy is to try to forge enough agreement among key outside players "to push, encourage, invite" Syrians to begin a dialogue.

Recent statements from Moscow and Washington, as well as from Beijing and Tehran, underline growing anxiety over a war that is destroying Syria, spilling across borders, and providing space for militant Islamist groups.

Current discussions focus on what is called the "Geneva statement", which envisages a Syrian-led transition involving a new government "with full executive powers".

The final communique issued after the Action Group for Syria's meeting in June does not spell out when and how President Assad would leave the scene, but it is implied in the process. Russia, still bristling over US-led Nato involvement in Libya, has insisted that such decisions have to be made by Syrians themselves.

'Conspiracy theories'

Mr Brahimi outlined some possible scenarios, including a move towards a more powerful parliament with an elected prime minister, which would side-step the protracted deadlock over the president's role.

He expressed concern about "all the conspiracy theories" appearing in the media about secret deals brokered between foreign powers to keep President Assad in office, which he insisted had no basis in reality.

Six months ago, when he took over from Kofi Annan after he quit a "mission impossible", Mr Brahimi told me that his task was "nearly impossible".

After months of shuttling between countless capitals, meeting all the key players, he still uses that phrase. But in the midst of a bleak political landscape, he said he still saw "quite a few openings".

Like everyone involved in this bitter bloody process, Mr Brahimi is painfully aware of how small and fragile those openings are.

"What I am telling absolutely everybody is, every day the little window closes a little. If it closes completely, we will have a broken Syria, a destroyed Syria."

But recent statements - by all sides - underline how adversaries, bent on winning, will hear what they want to hear.