The Cable

Top U.S. General: Syrian Opposition Not Ready for the Big Leagues

One day after the resignation of the United Nations' Syria envoy, America's top military officer added to the growing pessimism about the country's future by warning that a succession of smaller-scale conflicts were likely to erupt there even if the Assad regime was ousted from power.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Atlantic Council that even if the beleaguered Syrian opposition somehow ousted President Bashar al-Assad, a development that appears increasingly unlikely, the country would still be consumed with terror, chaos and starvation. "If Assad took his family and all of his cronies and departed Syria today, how does that country ... articulate itself?" he asked.

Dempsey noted that the Syrian opposition maintains no governance structure to provide goods, services and security; no force capable of holding ground to administer aid and wage attacks against the regime; and no counterterrorism capability to root out al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the country. "And we're not on a path currently to provide that," he said.

Dempsey's dour assessment of the military situation on the ground compounded the already bleak outlook offered by United Nations and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Tuesday as he handed in his resignation. "It's very sad that I leave this position and leave Syria behind in such a bad state," Brahimi said at a press conference in New York. He blamed the collapse of the peace effort on the warring parties, especially the Syrian regime. He also called out the divided Security Council and the nations abetting combatants on both sides, such as Iran, Russia, the United States and Gulf countries.

"Everybody who has responsibility and an influence in the situation has to remember that the question is how many more dead? How much more destruction is there going to be before Syria becomes again the Syria we have known," Brahimi said.

To date, the conflict has cost the lives of more than 150,000 people and forced nine million people from their homes. Secretary of State John Kerry said late Tuesday that "Mr. Brahimi did not fail." Instead, Kerry said that Assad, "who will not negotiate," is to blame. On Wednesday, Kerry embarks on a trip to the Middle East with a focus on the conflict in Syria. He will meet with the foreign ministers of the core nations supporting the Syrian opposition, including Britain, France, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf countries have pressed the United States to provide more powerful weaponry to the opposition, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles capable of shooting down Assad's warplanes and helicopters. The administration has been reluctant to hand over these weapons due to the multiplying number of Islamic extremist groups in the country. But with the rebels losing ground to Assad, including the key city of Homs, the White House is looking into ways of outfitting the missile launchers with fingerprint scanners and GPS systems designed to ensure the militants couldn't use the weapons against civilian aircraft. In recent weeks, the administration has launched a "pilot program" that gives rebels anti-tank missiles, called TOWs, designed to help the rebels pulverize reinforced bunkers and tanks.

During Wednesday's panel, the moderator pointed out that rebels say they need anti-aircraft weaponry in order to hold territory and organize counteroffensives. "That's their argument," Dempsey acknowledged. But he suggested that such tools would only provide short-term solutions. He described the future of Syria as a "succession of conflicts."

"You have the conflict that currently exists," he said. "Then there'll be the second conflict, which is a kind of internal conflict. And then there'll be a third conflict against the terrorist organizations." He stressed that any resolution of the civil war would require broad international support. "This issue is not just Syria. It's Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad."

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The Cable

Syrian Peace Envoy Finally Admits Defeat

In a sign of just how completely the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis have collapsed, joint United Nations and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi handed in his resignation today, expressing sorrow for leaving Syria in "such a bad state."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accepted Brahimi's resignation, which will go into effect on May 31. Ban also criticized U.N. Security Council members for not doing more to push for a resolution to the conflict, saying that their inability to support Brahimi's efforts "is a failure of all of us."

For over a year, Brahimi had raised the possibility of his resignation whenever the mediation efforts between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the Syrian opposition hit a particularly hopeless juncture. "Every time I wake up and I think I should resign, but I haven't," he told reporters in April 2013. In early March of this year, Brahimi again threatened to resign in a meeting with Russian diplomats if Moscow did not exert pressure on the Syrian regime to negotiate seriously.

"I knew it was coming, we all knew it was coming, it was a long time coming," said Ahmad Fawzi, who served as Brahimi's communications advisor on Syria and had worked with the Algerian diplomat for 20 years. "It's been a very long and frustrating road."

While Fawzi praised Brahimi for leading "a master class in conflict management and conflict resolution," he said that there was simply no common ground between the Syrian regime and the opposition on which to forge a deal. "You know the saying: ‘Where there's a will, there's a way?'" he said. "Well, where there's no will, there's no way."

Brahimi's resignation comes amid deepening concern about the fate of Syria. Speaking Tuesday at press breakfast in Washington, DC, France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that what started as a "small rebellion of tens of youngsters" in Syria is developed into a wider "international conflict" involving multiple foreign backers.

"The risk is it could keep on during years and years," he said.

France, he noted, has obtained worrying evidence that "hints" at the Syrian government's continued use of chemical weapons, including chlorine, in more than eleven areas across the country. He said French authorities as well as the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, are currently investigating reports of prohibited use of chemicals.

France's top diplomat also accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of assisting the country's purportedly anti-government extremists. "We have proof Bashar al Assad has spared a lot of them, he has freed a lot of them," Fabius said. He also claimed the Syrian government has shared some of the country's oil resources with extremists. 'In fact they are helping each other," he said.

Fabius made clear that despite Syria's actions France has no intention of supplying the opposition with weapons. Paris, he added, is also not considering renewing calls for air strikes against Syria if it tries to preserve remnants of its chemical weapons program.

Last year, the United States put off plans to conduct air strikes against Assad's government in exchange for a commitment by the government to eliminate its chemical weapons program. France was committed to participating in the attack.

But Fabius defended France's less belligerent position on Syria, saying Paris has taken a tougher approach there than its Western allies.

"Who has been the first to say there were chemical weapons in Syria? The French," he said. "Who has been the first to propose a strike. France."

"I would like to say- not being arrogant - that on the field of firmness we don’t have any lessons to take from anybody," he added.

In fact, Fabius, seem to suggest that the situation in Syria might have turned out differently with the use of Wesern firepower. "If there had been a strike on Syria things would have been different, both for Syria and probably to Russia as well," he said.

While Brahimi described his job as "nearly impossible" during the beginning of his mission in 2012, recent developments in Syria likely made it completely impossible. The direct negotiations between the regime and the opposition in Geneva ended in failure in February, leading Brahimi to apologize to the Syrian people for not making more progress. And in the wake of the talks' collapse, the Syrian regime has pushed forward with presidential elections scheduled for June -- a vote that Western nations have denounced as a farce, and Brahimi criticized as undermining the peace process.

"[Brahimi] has always said presidential elections mean the end of Geneva...You cannot discuss a political transition when one side is organizing elections," said one senior diplomat.

As the obstacles piled up, however, the same diplomat said that Brahimi reached for a metaphor in Greek mythology to describe his predicament: "I am ready to push the Sysiphean rock up the hill -- but the problem is I can't even push the rock," he said. "It doesn't move."

Brahimi's public opposition to the Syrian presidential election deepened his rift with the regime. The Syrian Foreign Ministry denounced Brahimi's statement, saying the decision to conduct the election was "a purely sovereign Syrian decision, that it does not allow anyone to interfere in," while Syrian state media added that Brahimi "tends to take sides when he is supposed to be an objective mediator."

Brahimi's contacts within Syria were dealt a serious blow even before that latest dust-up with the resignation of his deputy, Mokhtar Lamani, after the collapse of the Geneva talks. The veteran Moroccan diplomat had run Brahimi's office in Damascus, providing a vital direct channel to both the regime and the rebels. Following his resignation, Lamani, in a conversation with an acquaintance, likened his position to that of a character in an novel by Franz Kafka, describing sitting in the neatly-manicured garden of the Sheraton Damascus Hotel while fielding calls from desperate civilians and political figures fighting for their lives a few miles away. "The absurdities have no end," he said.

With Brahimi's entering his last two weeks on the job, the question occupying the U.N. is what comes next for the diplomatic track. Some European powers have encouraged Ban and Brahimi to put forward their ideas for a political settlement, in an attempt to force the Security Council to adopt the plan.

At the press conference today, Ban made no mention of who Brahimi's successor would be. Some of the names floated so far as replacements include former Tunisian Foreign Minister Kemal Morjane and former British diplomat Michael Williams. If nobody is named in the short-term, Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, and Ban himself will likely manage the Syrian file for the time being.

Whoever the replacement is, they'll have their work cut out for them.

This story has been updated