BEIRUT/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations on Friday confirmed that veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi would become the new international mediator on Syria, as the 17-month-old conflict slid deeper into civil war and refugees fled to Turkey in increasing numbers.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have turned increasingly to air power to hold back lightly armed rebels in the capital Damascus and Aleppo, a northern commercial hub. More than 18,000 people have died and some 170,000 have fled the country as a result of the fighting, according to the U.N.
Brahimi, who hesitated for days to accept a job that France’s U.N. envoy Gerard Araud called an “impossible mission,” will replace former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is stepping down at the end of the month.
“The (U.N.) Secretary-General appreciates Mr. Brahimi’s willingness to bring his considerable talents and experience to this crucial task for which he will need, and rightly expects, the strong, clear and unified support of the international community, including the Security Council,” U.N. spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby back Brahimi’s appointment, said del Buey, who added that achieving a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis remained a top priority for the United Nations.
Diplomats said all Security Council members supported Brahimi.
The announcement confirmed what diplomats told Reuters on Thursday.
Brahimi, a Nobel Peace laureate, will have a new title, Joint Special Representative for Syria. Diplomats said the change was to distance him from Annan, who had complained that his Syria peace plan was hampered by a divided Security Council.
U.N. officials told Reuters that Brahimi was expected to arrive in New York next week to meet with Ban and discuss plans for a fresh approach to Syria.
In an 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.”
Security Council members Russia and China are resisting Western efforts to step up pressure on Assad to quit and are unwilling to give even an amber light for military intervention — not that the United States and its allies have shown any appetite for overt action in Syria.
Washington, however, has stepped up non-lethal support to the rebels.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statement said: “My message to Special Envoy Brahimi is simple: The United States stands ready to support you and secure a lasting peace that upholds the legitimate aspirations for a representative government of the people of Syria.”
Clinton’s message to the Syrian people was “you are not alone,” and she said the international community was committed to a Syrian-led political transition and to ensuring those who commit atrocities are held accountable.
Turkey, a key regional supporter of the Syrian rebels, is taking the brunt of a swelling exodus of refugees, with 66,000 Syrians now sheltering there, the Turkish state disaster and emergency authority said.
Some 1,500 arrived from the rebel-held border town of Azaz after Assad’s air force bombed it on Wednesday, killing at least 35 people, Turkey’s Dogan news agency reported. It said another 1,500 from the devastated town were thought to be on their way.
More than 250 people, including 123 civilians, were killed in Syria on Thursday alone, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition watchdog.
Turkey’s state-run Anatolian news agency said 13 of 86 casualties brought from Aleppo and Azaz to a state hospital in the Turkish border province of Kilis had died from their wounds.
More than 170,000 Syrian refugees have been registered in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, the U.N. refugee agency said.
“There has been a further sharp rise in the number of Syrians fleeing to Turkey,” spokesman Adrian Edwards of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in Geneva. Forty percent of those in Turkey had arrived this month, he added.
Humanitarian conditions in Syria have deteriorated as fighting worsens, cutting off civilians from food supplies, health care and other assistance, U.N. agencies say. Sewage-contaminated water has led to a diarrhea outbreak in the countryside around Damascus, with 103 suspected cases.
Some 1.2 million people are uprooted in Syria, many staying in schools or other public buildings, U.N. officials say. U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, ending a visit to Syria, said on Thursday up to 2.5 million people needed aid there.
A Syrian astronaut who was part of a Soviet space mission a quarter of a century ago condemned on Friday the world’s failure to stem violence in Syria and urged Assad’s opponents to keep up their struggle.
General Muhammed Ahmed Faris, a military aviator and the first Syrian in space, fled to Turkey 10 days ago, joining the ranks of prominent defectors who have included military generals and former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab.
Hijab, who defected this month, has arrived in Qatar to discuss how to unify opposition efforts to hasten Assad’s downfall, his spokesman said.
A Sunni Muslim, Hijab is the most senior civilian official to desert Assad, whose ruling system is dominated by members of his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Shi’ite Iran, Assad’s closest ally, has cast the revolt in Syria as a plot by the United States and its regional allies to destroy an anti-Israel “axis of resistance” linking Tehran, Damascus and Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah movement.
“You want a new Middle East? We do too, but in the new Middle East ... there will be no trace of the American presence and the Zionists,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a speech to mark annual state-organized rallies against Israel.
The war in Syria is fraught with danger for neighboring countries such as Lebanon, where a local Shi’ite clan this week kidnapped more than 20 Syrians to try to secure the release of a kinsman seized by Syrian rebels near Damascus.
The gunmen said a Turkish hostage would be the first to die if their relative were killed.
Gulf Arab states have told their citizens to leave Lebanon after threats that more hostages would be seized.
The last U.N. monitors are due to leave Damascus by August 24, U.N. officials said, after a doomed mission to observe a ceasefire declared by Annan on April 12. It never took hold.
“It is clear that both sides have chosen the path of war, open conflict, and the space for political dialogue and cessation of hostilities and mediation is very, very reduced at this point,” deputy U.N. peacekeeping chief Edmond Mulet said.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Issam Abdullah and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Stephanie Nebahey in Geneva, Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Alistair Lyon and Paul Simao; Editing by Jon Boyle and Jim Loney