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No easy formula for Syrian ceasefire, say analysts

UN envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi is pushing for a ceasefire in Syria during the upcoming religious holiday. But experts see major obstacles and hope his previous peacemaking experience will prove decisive.

The outlook is not all that bright, but Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League special envoy for Syria, is going to try his best. He has not given up hope of a ceasefire during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which runs from October 26 to 28 - a pause in violence that several countries and institutions have called for. That's why he has traveled to Damascus to negotiate with the government and the opposition.

He has good reason to try all he can. The war raging in Syria has already claimed 30,000 lives, and is also impacting neighboring countries. Whether it is the skirmishes between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon, the military confrontations on the Syrian-Turkish border, the preparations for salvaging Syrian chemical weapons in Jordan, or the alleged Iranian transport flights over Iraq - the Syrian conflict is increasingly affecting the entire region.

Brahimi needs to take urgent action if he is to make a change, but according to Paul von Maltzahn, Executive Vice President of the German Council on Foreign Relations, his task will not be easy. Von Maltzahn sees one major obstacle in the way of Brahimi's mediation attempts: the two warring parties' belief in achieving victory through armed conflict. "And as long as this belief is not destroyed, both sides will continue to attack each other," he said.

A war with many fronts

A worker moves bodies near Dar Al Shifa hospital in Aleppo, Syria (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)

The shelling of Aleppo resulted in dozens of casualties

But even if optimism has waned on both sides, finding a resolution would still be difficult, believes Neil Melvin, director of the conflict management program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He sees a problem in the fact that the opposition is fractured, encompassing different religious and ethnic groups, such as Kurds, whose affiliations extend beyond Syria's borders.

"So this isn't a conflict between two parties but between several - and these parties are constantly shifting," said Melvin, adding that, parallel to his negotiations, Brahimi would need to convince the opposition to adopt a common stance.

The fragmentation is largely due to the pressure exerted by the Assad regime on the opposition and sections of the civilian population. Assad's opponents accuse his government of completely disregarding the country's population by using internationally outlawed cluster bombs. The bombs were dropped from planes and helicopters, with many of the strikes taking place near the strategically important Damascus-Aleppo highway running through the rebel-dominated town of Maarat al-Numan.

"Whole groups of Syrian civilians are leaving the country, which carries the conflict over Syrian borders," said Melvin. "Others feel that they need to defend themselves and their families. All this makes it difficult to reach a consensus which could be used as a basis for ending the war."

The danger of no cohesion

International involvement is not making Brahimi's task easier, either. With Russia, China, Iran and Iraq on one side, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and many western states on the other, it is clear that many different interests are being pursued in Syria.

UN Arab League deputy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi (photo:Bilal Hussein/AP/dapd)

Lakhdar Brahimi needs to take urgent action if he is to make a change

"The only possible way of making them adopt a more reserved stance would be by asking if they prefer a fragmented or a united Syria," said von Maltzahn. "Most of the players would prefer unity."

For this reason, von Maltzahn believes that a large part of Brahimi's task is to communicate the dangerous consequences of Syria's breakdown. But the question remains: who would take the first step? Melvin has seen a decisive change in the global security structure that has existed since the end of the Cold War. While in the last 20 years there has been an agreement between the world powers about how to deal with major conflicts, "this agreement broke apart in Syria."

"This can be mostly seen in the fact that the UN Security Council is unable to achieve any form of consensus," said Melvin. He believes that proxy wars between the global and regional forces are possible. This includes jihadists and Islamists, who are increasingly opposing Assad's mercenaries.

Faith in diplomacy

All this makes Brahimi's diplomatic skills an even more crucial factor in the outcome, believes von Maltzahn. His previous experience could be of great help here: Brahimi led successful negotiations during the Lebanese Civil War, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"In this regard, he has a relationship of mutual trust with the most important stakeholders and is familiar with the fine details of the problems," said von Maltzahn. "If anyone can achieve progress, it's him."

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