BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Algerian diplomat set to become the new international mediator on Syria has said he urgently needs to clarify what support the United Nations can give him and said it is too early to say whether President Bashar al-Assad should step down.
Lakhdar Brahimi, a veteran diplomat, was speaking a day after the United Nations confirmed he would take over Kofi Annan’s mediation role. Annan, who steps down at the end of the month with his peace plan in tatters, resigned complaining that divisions within the Security Council had hampered his work.
Brahimi made it clear he was acutely aware of the Security Council problem and would therefore need to urgently clarify what support the United Nations can offer him to ensure his mission has a better chance of success.
“When I go to New York I will be asking for lots of things. How to organise ourselves, whom we are going to talk to, (and) what kind of plan we are going to put together,” he told Reuters in a phone interview from Paris on Saturday.
“We will start discussing all this, what kind of support I will get and what kind of support I will need to try and do this job,” he added.
Brahimi takes over the role - described as an “impossible mission” by a senior French diplomat - at a time when fighting between government forces and rebels is in full swing with no sign of an imminent ceasefire.
More than 18,000 people have been killed and some 170,000 have so far fled the country, according to the United Nations.
Yet the Security Council remains deeply divided with Russia and China vetoing sanctions on Assad, arguing that the West is seeking to topple the Syrian government. The three other permanent members of the Council - the United States, Britain and France - all favour tough action however.
Brahimi said he would head to New York as early as next week to officially accept his mission and will later go on to Cairo to meet Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby.
He conceded that the problems Annan had faced had given him pause for thought.
“I’ve been struggling with the very principle of getting on such a mission and I’ve been discussing with the United Nations, with the Secretary General of the United Nations, how they saw this and how I would fit in,” he said.
In a separate interview with France 24 television, Brahimi said he would soon meet with the Security Council.
“We are going to discuss very seriously how they can help,” he said. “They are asking me to do this job. If they don’t support me, there is no job. They are divided, but surely they can unite on something like this and I hope they will.”
Brahimi, 78, served as a U.N. special envoy in Iraq after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, in Afghanistan, both before and after the end of Taliban rule, and in South Africa as it emerged from the apartheid era.
Describing the situation in Syria as “absolutely terrible”, he said he would do his best to find a way of ending the 17-month-old conflict.
“The situation in Syria is dire, the situation is absolutely terrible. You see that on your television screen everyday. Villages and cities seem to be flattened from the bombing,” he said.
“I could not refuse in a situation like this where hundreds and thousands, maybe millions of people are suffering to try and help no matter how difficult the situation is.”
However, he declined to be drawn on whether he thought President Assad should step down - in contrast to Annan who said it was clear the Syrian leader “must leave office”.
“It’s much too early for me to say. I don’t know enough about what is happening,” Brahimi said, when asked whether he would be asking Assad to resign.
He had not yet held any talks with Assad but said he would meet him and the troubled country’s opposition leaders as soon as the time was right.
“That’s another basic principle. Never refuse to talk to anybody, and if for anything, for the understanding of the situation.”
Brahimi, a Nobel Peace laureate, will have a new title, Joint Special Representative for Syria. Diplomats said the change was to distance himself from Annan.
He said he’d been in contact with Annan, a former U.N. Secretary-General, in recent months but declined to comment on why Annan’s mission failed or whether he’d been advised to avoid undertaking certain initiatives.
“I’ve been in touch with him (Annan) throughout his mediation and in fact I spoke to him only yesterday,” he said.
“I can’t comment on his (peace) plan but I can say that we will try to solve this conflict, today is better than tomorrow.”
The United Nations confirmed Brahimi was to become the next mediator as U.N. observers in Syria prepared to withdraw due to the violence.
Brahimi said he would draw on his past experience.
“Now we are talking about Syria. What I have seen elsewhere will be useful to remember, maybe there will be ideas on how to do a few things and ideas on how not to do things,” he said.
“It is the Syrians who will make peace or war, nobody else and we will be there to try to help them as much as they are willing to accept our help.”
Editing by Andrew Osborn