- Associated Press - Monday, September 24, 2012

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Syria grabbed the spotlight as world leaders at the United Nations on Monday heard a dire warning from international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi that the war is getting worse and threatening to spill across the Mideast. But he also voiced a note of hope, saying he thinks there may be a way forward despite the deadlock in the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. Brahimi told reporters after briefing the council for the first time since he took over from Kofi Annan on Sept. 1 as the U.N.-Arab League special representative for Syria that he started to discuss a “way forward” with members.

He said the situation remains at a stalemate and “extremely difficult,” with no prospect to move forward “today or tomorrow.”

At the same time, Mr. Brahimi said he still held out hope for a solution and told the council that “paradoxically now that I have found out a little more about what is happening in the country and the region, I think that we will find an opening in the not-too-distant future.”

“I refuse to believe that reasonable people do not see that you cannot go backward, that you cannot go back to the Syria of the past,” he said.

Mr. Brahimi said he has not yet crafted “a full plan” but he did have some ideas that he hopes to expand on after another visit to the region.

The Security Council, the only U.N. body that can impose global sanctions and authorize military action, has been bitterly divided by Syria’s crisis. Russia, Syria’s key protector, and China have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring the government of President Bashar Assad to halt the violence and open talks with his opponents aimed at a transition of power.

According to a diplomat inside the council’s private briefing, who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly to reveal details, Mr. Brahimi said he believed that Mr. Assad’s goal was to return the country to “the old Syria,” which he and his father have ruled as dictators for four decades.

He said Mr. Brahimi had suggested Mr. Assad’s intention was to portray the uprising as fueled by outside nations, in an attempt to discount protests that began in March 2011 to demand an end to his rule. The uprising was inspired by the other revolts around the Arab world against authoritarian rulers.

With a deadlock over an international response, the situation in Syria has deteriorated rapidly with routine torture, looming food shortages because of a poor harvest, and citizens fearing to seek hospital treatment when injured, Mr. Brahimi said, according to the diplomat.

The envoy told the meeting that about 2,000 schools had been damaged and others used as shelter by those who had lost their homes, while many factories and pharmaceutical laboratories were destroyed or falling into disrepair.

Activists claim nearly 30,000 people have died in the uprising, including in attacks Monday by Syrian warplanes in the northern city of Aleppo.

Mr. Brahimi told reporters that he does see “some signs” that the divided Syrian opposition may be moving toward unity, which is key for any political negotiations.

He said Mr. Annan’s six-point peace plan — which starts with a cease-fire and ends with a political transition — and the declaration by world leaders in Geneva in June backing the peace process are still “elements in my toolbox.” He said he will decide later how to use them.

Outside the briefing, which was attended by ambassadors, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that the failed six-point peace plan should not be abandoned.

Mr. Annan’s plan never took hold and was largely ignored by the government and the rebels before it ultimately collapsed.

“I think the substance of this plan is still the best alternative,” Mr. Westerwelle said. “We have to solve the conflict in Syria, but we also have to avoid a conflagration in the region, and I think this explains why we seek and why we work for a political solution.”

Mr. Westerwelle also called on Syria’s opposition to unite and show that it stands for a pluralistic, democratic society.

Leaders in the region must follow the example of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and condemn the Assad regime, he said.

“I hope this will serve as a wake-up call to those who still hesitate to denounce the violence caused by the regime in Syria,” Mr. Westerwelle said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, said that Iran is neutral in the Syrian civil war, and he denied that Tehran is providing weapons or training to Mr. Assad’s regime.

“We like and love both sides, and we see both sides as brothers,” he said. He referred to the conflict in Syria as “tribal” fighting and said that international “meddling from the outside has made the situation even harder.” He refused to say whether Iran would accept a government not led by the Assad regime, which for years has been Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer and John Daniszewski at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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