Syria mediator exits amid new claim of toxic strikes

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UNITED NATIONS -- International efforts to end the war in Syria faltered further Tuesday as the U.N. mediator quit, citing frustrations over the moribund political negotiations, and France's top diplomat said there was evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons more than a dozen times after it had signed the treaty banning them.

Taken together, the two events pointed to the failings of the West's signature efforts on Syria: finding a diplomatic way out of a civil war in its fourth year -- and a pact that was proudly touted as stopping the Syrian government from using chemical weapons.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that he had accepted the resignation of his special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who told reporters, "It's very sad that I leave this position and leave Syria behind in such a bad state."

Mr. Brahimi, 80, a veteran Algerian statesman who helped negotiate an end to Lebanon's civil war nearly a quarter-century ago, spoke to a closed-door session of the Security Council after his resignation announcement. He pointedly told its members that they needed to take steps to stop the flow of arms to both sides in the war and to address the dire humanitarian crisis, according to diplomats inside.

His departure -- without even a hint of who might succeed him -- signaled the bleak prospects for peace in a conflict that has claimed more than 150,000 lives and shows no signs of abating, as President Bashar Assad says he intends to serve another seven-year term after staging elections in June. Mr. Brahimi's announcement came just two days before Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from European and Arab nations are to gather in London to discuss the crisis of Syria, with no new or obvious path forward.

Asked for his message to the Syrian people, Mr. Brahimi said later in the day: "Apologies once more."

But there were also signs of disarray within the Western coalition Tuesday, as France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, expressed regret that the Obama administration had decided against using force after an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area that Western nations, led by the United States, blamed on forces loyal to Assad.

Though a U.S. military strike was called off when Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons, Mr. Fabius said there were "indications" that Syria had since waged 14 chemical attacks. "Right now, we are examining the samples that were taken," he told reporters.

France, Mr. Fabius indicated, had been prepared to use force last year as part of a U.S.-led coalition, but had not wanted to act alone. Had such a military strike been carried out, Mr. Fabius said, "we feel that it would have changed many things."

While France had previously indicated its chagrin over the Obama administration's military pullback on Syria, it was unusual for France's top diplomat to speak so frankly about it -- in Washington no less, following a meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Mr. Kerry.

Mr. Fabius' assertions of chemical weapons use, most of them involving chlorine bombs, came as other signs pointed to Syrian government culpability. Human Rights Watch, in a report Tuesday, said it had evidence that Assad's forces had dropped chlorine-filled bombs from helicopters on three towns in Northern Syria in April. The chemical weapons treaty that Syria signed last year prohibits using chlorine as a weapon, even though chlorine itself isn't banned.

The State Department had no comment on Mr. Fabius' assertions of chemical attacks, saying the matter was being investigated by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin, likewise urged patience until the investigation was finished.

Western officials have said in recent weeks that they were aware of reports that use of chlorine might have occurred more than a dozen times.

The State Department on Tuesday defended President Barack Obama's decision to refrain from using force, saying it led to an agreement that has eliminated 92 percent of Syria's precursor chemicals, which are used to make poison gas, and noting that it was pushing Syria to give up the rest.

Ahmad Jarba, head of the moderate Syrian opposition, who met Tuesday with Mr. Obama, has been urging the United States to arm select rebel groups with surface-to-air missiles. The White House has long been reluctant to take such a step, fearing that they would fall into the wrong hands.


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