Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League’s special envoy for Syria, heads for New York next week to brief the UN Security Council on his recent mission to Damascus.
The Algerian diplomat met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s capital on Saturday and has been speaking to opposition leaders inside and outside the country to try to stop the worsening violence.
Brahimi, in his first television interview since meeting Assad, spoke with Al Jazeera’s Jane Arraf during a stop in Jordan, which has received the biggest influx of Syrian refugees.
He warned that the crisis, which he termed a fully-fledged civil war, is worsening and said he would consult UN members for support in developing a plan to stop the bloodshed.
Jane Arraf: You’ve just come from Syria as well as Turkey and Jordan. Was there anything about your talks in Syria, particularly with President al-Assad, that changed your perception of the problems that you’re facing?
Lakhdar Brahimi: Naturally talking to people, especially somebody like that, will probably confirm a few things that you know and open other avenues for you. I talked also to a lot of people from the opposition, civil society. That certainly has helped sharpen the picture I have of Syria. But you still need to talk to a lot of other people, Syrians and non-Syrians, until you can really be in the position to say ‘I am certain of the ground I stand on’. I don’t think we are there yet.
Arraf: What is the picture that’s emerging of Syria? What is your biggest concern at the moment?
“What is certain is that this is a very serious crisis. What is certain is that talking about reform is not the right thing to do anymore. Now you’ve got to talk about change, and change has to be serious and profound.”
- Lakhdar Brahimi
Brahimi: The point I’m making as seriously, as strongly as I can, is that the situation is very bad and worsening. It’s not improving. Syrians on both sides say from time to time ‘we are going to win very soon – in three months or two months’. I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think any side is winning now or anytime in the future. The situation is getting worse and it is a huge threat for the region. These kind of conflicts cannot be bottled up within one country, they will invariably spill over. They already have with these thousands, hundreds of thousands of refugees that are destabilising, or threatening to destabilise neighbouring countries. So this is the main point I am trying to make so that Syrians and their different friends realise how serious the situation is and how important it is to pull all forces together to help the country solve its problems before its too late. This is the main point I’m making. I am also making the same point that Kofi Annan was making. We have one track, one line if you like, of mediation in trying to solve that problem, then everybody should support that track. You don’t need several tracks for situations like this. When I am going to New York I will convey this message again to the Security Council and to all the people that I am going to meet.
Arraf: Are they willing to listen? You have now had talks with the Chinese, the Russians, an Iranian envoy – are they realising the seriousness of this?
Brahimi: I think so. I think [this is the only reason] that foreign ministers feel that they have to call me, take the responsibility of calling me, and also to agree to see me in New York next week. I think this in itself is an indication that they are realising this is important – this is important and urgent. Let’s hope that the next step is to see how they get together and support a plan that we can put out. I tell people I have no plan. I don’t, but it’s not impossible to work out one if there is a willingness to listen and work together.
Arraf: Are there any parameters right now for the plan that might emerge? Could it include the Syrian president for instance?
Brahimi: It will include him necessarily. How – the thing is, you’ve got to go into this from what is certain to the things that need to become certain as you go along. What is certain is that this is a very serious crisis. What is certain is that talking about reform is not the right thing to do anymore. Now you’ve got to talk about change, and change has to be serious and profound. I don’t know what qualifications you want to give it but change has to take place. Ideally you want that change to take place in an orderly manner so that you don’t repeat what happened in Iraq and you don’t repeat what happened in Libya. So you want an orderly development, change that really responds to the legitimate aspirations of the people of Syria.
Arraf: Does that change necessarily include a change of leadership?
Brahimi:This is not something you want to discuss on television before you discuss it with the interested parties inside Syria and also around Syria. But I think everybody knows, and I have said this to everybody, what is needed is change – it must be serious and the earlier the better.
Arraf: It’s really difficult to tell – as it was in Iraq – who speaks for the Syrian people. How much credibility does the external opposition have for instance do you think?
Brahimi: I’m the last one who can or should pass judgement. The Syrian people is diverse – there is a very rich diversity and politically also it is very diverse. There is no doubt they cannot go on speaking as tiny little groups. Ultimately you’ve got to have the Syrian people represented by two, three, four parties, not by 200. But I will not pass judgement on any external or internal Syrian opposition. I’ve been talking to quite a few of them I will talk to more and I hope that together we can put together something that will work.
Arraf: Did you feel in your visit that you were able to get a sense of what what was going on on the ground, given the security restrictions?
Brahimi: I think so. I’m sure I have still a lot to learn but the little I have seen and what I have heard - and I have heard much more than I have seen – confirms that the situation is extremely bad and getting worse – a lot of people have died, a lot of people are dying every day – thousands of people have been arrested, some people put it at 30,000, are in jail. Cities have been destroyed or large parts of cities have been destroyed. Sanctions are biting and are affecting the people and I don’t know what else. The situation is not improving at all, so that much I have seen. People are trying to put ideas and projects and some people want elections, other people want negotiations, other people don’t want negotiations so all that has got to come together in some kind of rational and credible process.
Arraf: Is it getting worse because there is in a sense a military stalemate in some cases?
Brahimi: It is worse because people are being killed and the country is being destroyed – in Damascus you hear day and night the sound of big guns in the suburbs of Damascus. I think Aleppo is much worse, Homs is not really getting better, Idlib and all sorts of places are suffering. Some people will tell you ‘look, the centre of Damascus is quiet, people are going about their business’ - that is true but that is not significant and that is not the important thing in Syria today. The important thing is these guns that are being used 24 hours a day, this fighting that is taking place. It does look like a stalemate but it is not a static stalemate. It is a stalemate where people are dying and property is being destroyed.
How concerned are you about foreign interference in Syria – whether its weapons believed to be coming from some of the other countries in the region or Iranian advisers on the ground?
The secretary-general of the United Nations practically every time he speaks about Syria says we must stop the flow of weapons into Syria. Each side would say we are receiving weapons to defend ourselves but I suppose that at some stage, the people who are sending weapons will have to also come around […] as part of a settlement that has got to stop.
Arraf: You don’t like deadlines but at what point would you assess that it’s not worth continuing your mission. What would have to happen for you to make that decision?
Brahimi: I don’t know. I’m just beginning, it’s not a month yet. I will not stay one day beyond, if God forbid I realise I cannot go any further, I will stop and give up. But as long as there is any hope that we can help in any way possible, we will continue.
Arraf: Before you took the job you said you would need the support of the Security Council. Do you believe you have the support you need?
Brahimi: I have the support of every member of the Security Council separately. It would be good to have it collectively – I think it will happen – they are inviting me to address them next week and this is one of the things we are going to discuss you see. I am nothing if I’m not their man so if they want me to be their man they will have to support me clearly and openly.
Arraf: I remember in Iraq you came and warned of the prospect of civil war long before civil war there was on anyone’s mind. Is it now a full-fledged civil war in Syria? And what will remain of Syria?
Brahimi: You see, understandably people who are involved in something like this will take a long time before they accept that they are in civil war and I remember perfectly well what I said in Iraq – I think it was in April 2004 – I said no one is going to say ‘tomorrow I am going to start a civil war’. Civil wars happen because – in Lebanon it was a bus that was attacked, that started a civil war and you have one incident and then two, then three, then 10, then 30 and then one day everybody recognise that it is a civil war. When a neighbour kills a neighbour, when soldiers turn their guns against their fellow soldiers, what do you call that? So that is why I’m saying ‘don’t say you want to prevent a civil war, say I want to stop the civil war before it becomes unstoppable’. So I think yes, we are in a situation of civil war but it can be stopped and the earlier we really all start working on that, the better.
Arraf: Regarding the refugees you’ve now toured the refugee camps. What’s your feeling about the state that the refugees are in and what seems to be a shifting pattern of more vulnerable people coming across to Jordan for instance?
Brahimi: I came to see as part of sensing the situation and seeing all that constitutes this conflict but to tell you the truth, I’m terribly embarrassed when I go there, you look like a voyeur. You come for one or two hours. I was terribly embarrassed and unhappy. In Turkey I met some very highly-educated people who must be terribly frustrated, unhappy and even ashamed of being at the mercy of – like beggars. It’s not a nice situation to be in, and then you see some people coming to look at you as if you were in a zoo. It’s terribly, terribly embarrassing. Some people were angry, both in Turkey and here. A young man in Turkey told me ‘please tell me, are we human?’ I had no answer. Here we saw a few people, thousands, who had something to say and we couldn’t even listen to them. So it’s important and necessary to tell everybody ‘this is what I saw, this is what the refugee camp is this is what the situation of refugees is’. On the other hand, on a personal basis, it is terribly embarrassing.
Arraf: Is the number of refugees potentially destabilising the region?
Brahimi: It is. Turkey has spent until now $300 millions on the refugees. I think we should be thankful to them. I am not sure whether anybody is helping them. Jordan does not have those kind of resources and they have much more refugees and until now the international community has not been that generous. I was told today that these tents could be replaced with prefabricated lodgings with $60 million for 80,000 refugees – and these kind of prefabricated houses can be taken back because when these people return there houses will have been destroyed in many cases. $60 million can be given almost by anybody so perhaps I can make an appeal through your channel, especially to people in our region. Sixty million dollars to give a decent shelter to the refugees that are in Jordan for the winter that is coming – a tent costs only $500 but it has to be replaced every four months. A prefabricated unit costs $4,000 so for the 80,000 people that are I think already here or are coming into Jordan, you need $60 million – it can be given by almost any government.
Arraf: You’ve called this mission nearly impossible. Have you ever faced anything so difficult?
Brahimi: Well, yes. Lebanon looked just as difficult. Iraq was horrible, absolutely horrible, because Iraq was a country that has been agressed, invaded by the biggest power on earth – the United States together with Britain and other countries. This is extremely difficult. It is very, very difficult, probably also because one has come into it very early on when things are becoming worse by the day. So yeah, did I face something as difficult? The thing you are doing is always the most difficult. Let’s put it this way.
Arraf: Dr Brahimi, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Exclusive Al Jazeera interview with Lakhdar Brahimi about the future of Syria. This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, but also an amazing interview and a great view into one of the figures who is playing a key part in ending the violence in Syria. Brahimi has a more-or-less cynical view on where the conflict is headed, but seems to be hopeful that the actors supporting the regime are recognizing the severity of the violence and may come through to allow a new government to be established in Syria.