New Syrian peace envoy begins 'mission almost impossible'

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Civilians flee Homs as shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Assad continue today. Photo: Reuters

Murder in Libya, mayhem in Cairo and Sanaa, escalating protests in the Arab and Muslim world beyond; it's little wonder Lakhdar Brahimi flew into Damascus almost unnoticed.

Today the UN’s new envoy meets President Assad. Expectations are not high. And that’s an understatement. Even Mr Brahimi calls his a "mission almost impossible."

His predecessor gave up after months of fruitless diplomacy and if anything sounds even gloomier now.

"This is just the beginning," Kofi Annan told Radio Four’s Today programme this morning, of a civil war that is growing deadlier by the day.

Both government and opposition, he says, see a solution only on the battlefield, and that won’t change until the international community forces them to put aside their guns and begin to talk.

As Mr Brahimi says: mission almost impossible.

Iran and Russia’s support for the regime seems unshakable.

Gulf States are said to be quietly funding the rebels. And the United States and Britain have stepped up their support too. Non-lethal aid is what they will own up to.

There’s been a great deal of pressure on western powers to do more militarily. But here, Annan’s wise counsel is caution.

To those who draw comparisons, he says:

Libya is not Syria. Libya imploded, Syria will explode. And it will explode beyond its borders

And yet there is a common thread. It runs through Egypt too. And it will only strengthen cautious voices in Washington and London.

The west supported those uprisings. If pay back comes in the frightening form of embassies attacked and diplomats killed, then the case for a muscular intervention in Syria is significantly weakened.

Assad knows it. It could be that mission almost impossible just got even harder.