DAMASCUS, Syria – The new international envoy tasked with ending Syria's civil war summed up his first foray to Damascus Saturday with a startling and frank admission that he still has no plan for stopping the bloodshed which he warned could threaten world peace.
The bleak outlook offered by veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi after three days of meetings with Syrian officials and the opposition underlines just how fruitless diplomatic efforts have been in bringing an end to the seemingly intractable and deadly 18-month-old conflict.
"I repeat ... I have no plan," Brahimi told reporters in Damascus after meeting with Syria's embattled president, Bashar Assad, in their first talks since the Algerian diplomat took up the job earlier this month that he himself has called "nearly impossible."
"We, however, will set the plan that we will follow after listening to all internal, regional and international parties, hoping that such a plan will manage to open channels toward ending the crisis," he added.
Brahimi faces a monumental task in trying to break through the deadly cycle of violence that activists say has killed at least 23,000 people since the uprising to topple Assad began in March 2011. Brahimi, who also served as a U.N. envoy in Iraq and Afghanistan, replaced former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan who left the job in frustration in August after his efforts failed to resolve Syria's conflict.
Annan's six-point peace plan, which included a cease-fire, never gained traction on the ground, and was largely ignored by the government and the rebels before the plan ultimately collapsed.
The Security Council decided last month to end a 300-member U.N. military observer mission that was sent to monitor the cease-fire that never took hold, replacing it with a small liaison office that will support any future peace moves. Earlier this year, the Arab League dispatched monitors to Syria, but withdrew them after a month because they were unable to halt the fighting.
The uprising that began with largely peaceful protests has since morphed into a deadly armed insurgency with hundreds killed every week as the government increasingly relies on air power to try and crush the rebels.
Activist groups said more than 50 people were killed across the country Saturday in violence centered in the country's largest city, Aleppo, and the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.
The two cities were once seen as largely immune to the violence that has roiled other parts of Syria, but have been hit by fighting as rebels try to bring the battle to symbols of Assad's power. Although the regime is better armed than the rebels — its modern arsenal includes warplanes, helicopter gunships, tanks and artillery — the government has not been able to crush the rebellion. The rebels also have failed to overthrow the regime, leading to a bloody stalemate that many fear will drag on indefinitely.
Mindful of the challenges on the ground, Brahimi said the crisis in Syria is "very serious and dangerous," and the gap between the political parties "very wide."
The veteran Algerian diplomat's visit to Syria that began Thursday has involved meetings with both officials and opposition leaders. He says the goal is to help him plan his initiative to end the crisis.
"He is still in the process of gauging opinions and collecting facts but he is serious about making his mission a success because the alternative is catastrophic for Syria and the region," said Hassan Abdul-Azim, a veteran Syrian opposition figure in Damascus who met with Brahimi on Friday.
Abdul-Azim said that although conditions were far from ripe for a political settlement, there were some changes since Annan's mission that may eventually lead to more regime willingness to compromise.
"The regime thought it could kill the revolution by force. Now they know beyond a doubt that that is never going to happen," he told AP in a telephone interview.
Assad reiterated his country's "full commitment" to cooperate with any efforts to end the crisis in Syria as long as those efforts are "neutral and independent," according to the state-run news agency SANA. The Syrian regime has made several such pledges in the past, only to routinely violate those commitments.
Assad also said any efforts would need to focus on pressuring countries that "finance and train terrorists and smuggle weapons into Syria to halt such acts."
Syrian authorities blame the uprising on a foreign conspiracy and accuse Gulf countries Saudi Arabia and Qatar, along with the U.S, other Western countries, and Turkey, of offering funding and training to the rebels, whom they describe as "terrorists."
Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the rebels' main foreign backers offering aid, and Turkey serves as headquarters for the leaders of the ragtag Free Syrian Army rebel group and hosts many of the Syrian National Council opposition group's meetings.
The Syrian president also said his government was "serious" in its call for a dialogue among all Syrians — a call that has been repeatedly rejected by the opposition which is adamant that any dialogue should be restricted to talks on Assad stepping down.
Brahimi said he would head to New York to continue consultations, adding that he would also visit countries "which have influence, interests, or both, with regard to the Syrian issue."
Brahimi acknowledged the difficulty of the mission and said he was not looking for any quick success. "I have undertaken (the job) because I am very hopeful that I will aim to help, however little, the people of Syria," he said.
"The common ground does exist as the Syrians love their country. They want peace in their country and perhaps we can help them achieve that."
Karam reported from Beirut.