Syria risks turning into a Somalia-style failed state in which battles between warring factions could claim as many as 100,000 lives next year, the international peace envoy warned on Sunday, in his bleakest assessment yet of the near two-year crisis.
After a week of meetings with officials in Damascus and their allies in the Kremlin, Lakhdar Brahimi pleaded for fresh help from squabbling global powers to force the two sides in Syria towards a political solution.
Syria activists reported a weekend bloody even by the standards of this destructive conflict, as regime forces retook an area of the rebellious third city of Homs and rebels pressed towards the airport near the biggest city of Aleppo.
“I warn of what will come”, Mr Brahimi, United Nations and Arab League envoy, told reporters in Cairo after meeting Nabil al-Araby, the Arab League chief. “The choice is between a political solution or of full collapse of the Syrian state.’’
Mr Brahimi said the struggle between Syria’s regime and fiefs in the disparate rebel movement could lead to “Somalisation, which means warlords – and the Syrian people will be persecuted by those who control their fate”.
He added that the casualties to come in Syria could dwarf the more than 40,000 people estimated to have been killed since an initially peaceful uprising in March last year drew a brutal response from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and eventually turned into a war.
Mr Brahimi said: “It is getting worse, and therefore if nearly 50,000 were killed in nearly two years if – God forbids – this crisis continues for another year, it will not only kill 25,000. It will kill 100,000.”
Like his predecessor Kofi Annan, who quit in frustration in August, Mr Brahimi has often seemed a marginal figure, faced with still irreconcilable differences in the UN Security Council between anti-Assad powers in the west, and the Syrian’s president’s allies in Moscow and Beijing.
He said he needed international help to get Syria’s combatants to talk to each other, after opposition representatives last week rejected an invitation to talks from Russia – whom they distrust because of its role in arming the Damascus regime, and its refusal to accept Mr Assad’s departure as a condition for a political transition.
Even if there were to be progress on the diplomatic front, the widening war and rebel advances on the ground are seen as eroding the chances of setting up a transitional government along the lines agreed by international powers in Geneva in June – and backed by Mr Brahimi.
The armed opposition feels it is winning slowly but surely, while the regime is hitting back ever harder with its still substantial arsenal of warplanes, artillery and tanks.
Clashes flared around the country on Sunday, from Aleppo in the north to the Damascus suburbs and the southern city of Deraa, highlighting the war’s growing spread and fragmentation.
Regime forces recaptured the Homs district of Deir Balbeh and battled rebels closing in on Aleppo airport, activists said, while opposition fighters overran an oil pumping station in the northern province of Raqqa after days of battle.
Almost 200 people died from the conflict on Saturday, just over half of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based pro-opposition monitoring group.