Sunday 24 September 2017

Envoy to Syria looks to Europe for peacekeeping force

The new international envoy to Syria is drawing up plans for a 3,000-strong peacekeeping force that is likely to involve European troops in policing any future truce.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat who took over as joint United Nations and Arab League peace envoy last month, has spent recent weeks sounding out which countries would be willing to contribute soldiers.

Given the volatility of the conflict and the growing presence of Islamists on the rebel side, it is thought British and American forces would be unlikely to take part because of their past involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead, Mr Brahimi is thought to be looking at nations that currently contribute to Unifil, the 15,000 strong mission set up to police Israel's borders with Lebanon.

Countries contributing to Unifil include Ireland, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, one of which would be expected to play a leading role in the Syria force.

Yet the presence of any European troops in Syria -- even from nations considered more "neutral" in the Arab world -- would still represent a significant new Western military involvement in the Middle East. Experts fear they could be a magnet for attacks.

Details of Mr Brahimi's plans emerged as he arrived in Istanbul yesterday for talks aimed at quelling tensions between Syria and Turkey.

Last week, following several days of cross-border shelling by the two countries' armies, Turkey intercepted a Syria-bound passenger jet after claiming to have received reports it had Russian-made defence equipment on board.

Meanwhile, Syrian human rights groups reported some of the heaviest on-the-ground fighting to date.

A rebel offensive that began in the north on Thursday had killed more than 130 soldiers in two days, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Syrian government, meanwhile, has been using ever more air power, hammering rebel units on the border with Lebanon.

Mr Brahimi, 78, became envoy after the resignation in August of Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, whose initial peace plan earlier this year ended in complete failure. Since taking over, Mr Brahimi has deliberately sought to dampen expectations, warning that it might be "nearly impossible" for him to succeed. Yet he will visit Syria soon to try to persuade Damascus to call a ceasefire, and diplomatic sources say his office has been exploring the peacekeeping option in a "very serious" manner.

"Brahimi has asked for the lists of troop-contributing countries, and has already ruled out a number of countries, which essentially leaves European troops," a source said.

Any peacekeeping force would require a mandate from the UN Security Council, two of whose permanent members, Russian and China, back President Assad.

© Telegraph

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