Lakhdar Brahimi, the international envoy on Syria, is in Damascus today for what appears to be a hurriedly-arranged meeting with President Assad. Those taken by surprise included the Syrian information minister, Omran al-Zohbi: Brahimi was already on his way as Zohbi told reporters he was unaware of any such visit.
So far, neither Brahimi nor anyone else has said anything officially about the purpose of his mission – and this reticence may be an indication of its importance and sensitivity. The most likely explanation is that Brahimi will not be seeking another ill-fated ceasefire at this stage (as he did during his last visit in October) but will be taking soundings about a possible political transition.
Last Thursday, Brahimi had a phone conversation with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and according to The Voice of Russia they discussed "prospects for a political and diplomatic settlement in Syria".
On Friday, Lavrov announced that Brahimi would visit Moscow for talks on Syria "before the end of this year".
On Saturday an unnamed Arab League source told ReutersBrahimi would visit Syria "in the next few days" and was expected to meet President Assad, government officials and "some opposition factions".
On Sunday, Brahimi arrived in Beirut from Cairo then continued his journey overland with a UN escort, thus avoiding Damascus airport where fighting has been reported in the vicinity.
This sequence of events suggests that Brahimi's Damascus trip is to lay some of the groundwork for his meeting in Moscow later this week or early next week.
Russia has become markedly less supportive of Assad during the last few weeks, raising hopes that a negotiated end to the conflict may yet be found.
Lavrov has repeatedly said that he regards the Geneva Communique, issued last June with international agreement, is the basis for a solution and a report from al-Jazeera today places Brahimi's visit to Damascus within that framework.
The Geneva Communique includes "principles and guidelines" for what it describes as "a Syrian-led transition". It says:
There is an overwhelming wish [among the Syrian people] for a state that:
• Is genuinely democratic and pluralistic, giving space to established and newly emerging political actors to compete fairly and equally in elections. This also means that the commitment to multi-party democracy must be a lasting one, going beyond an initial round of elections.
• Complies with international standards on human rights, the independence of the judiciary, accountability of those in government and the rule of law. It is not enough just to enunciate such a commitment. There must be mechanisms available to the people to ensure that these commitments are kept by those in authority.
• Offers equal opportunities and chances for all. There is no room for sectarianism or discrimination on ethnic, religious, linguistic or any other grounds. Numerically smaller communities must be assured that their rights will be respected.
Among the "key steps" for a transition, the document specifies:
• The establishment of a transitional governing body which can establish a neutral environment in which the transition can take place. That means that the transitional governing body would exercise full executive powers. It could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.
• It is for the Syrian people to determine the future of the country. All groups and segments of society in Syria must be enabled to participate in a National Dialogue process. That process must not only be inclusive, it must also be meaningful – that is to say, its key outcomes must be implemented.
Al-Jazeera's report today says Brahimi is hoping to "achieve a breakthrough" – though such talk is probably premature. Developing a plan for political transition in Syria is bound to be an incremental process. There are signs, as I reported yesterday, that an outline is taking shape but it is far from complete.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 December 2012.