Syria plans to hold national elections in June or July, its ambassador to the United Nations said Friday, as Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that he would send his seasoned Syria mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, to Iran, the Syrian government’s most vital backer in the Middle East.
Iran can play a role in “impressing upon the Syrian regime to come to the Geneva conference in a more constructive way,” Mr. Ban told reporters after briefing the General Assembly, referring to a series of peace talks with rebels seeking the government’s ouster, which have so far yielded little progress. “That is why it’s important that Lakhdar Brahimi visits Iran.”
Mr. Brahimi is scheduled to arrive in Tehran on Sunday, the secretary general’s office said.
Asked whether he would urge that elections be postponed in Syria, Mr. Ban said it was a sovereign country’s prerogative to schedule a vote, but he acknowledged that an election would make it difficult to hold talks whose main purpose was to discuss the establishment of a transitional government. Equally important, he said, is whether President Bashar al-Assad runs.
“If and when President Assad becomes a candidate, then it’s very difficult in moving ahead in the Geneva peace process,” he said.
The secretary general has long wanted Iran to participate in the talks. His efforts at inviting Iran to the Geneva negotiations in January ended disastrously, after he announced that it would participate, only to reverse course 24 hours later. Iran could not attend the talks, he said, because it had not affirmed the ground rules.
In another development, the head of the United Nations Children’s Fund, after a two-day visit to Syria this week, urged world powers to find ways to end the conflict, which he said had affected 5.5 million children in that country, twice as many as a year ago.
Anthony Lake, the executive director of Unicef, said he went to the besieged city of Homs on Thursday and spoke to a woman who had been evacuated by aid workers just weeks ago with her 12-year-old son.
The boy told Mr. Lake that he had been running through dry sewers because it was not safe to walk through the city anymore. He was sent by his mother to forage for food in abandoned homes. He brought back jars of old olives and hunks of bread, even rotten bread, so it could be warmed with oil and eaten.
In a telephone interview from Lebanon, Mr. Lake said: “The little boy who was doing these things was drawing in a book and writing sentences. His mother said, ‘That’s what he should be doing, not what he was doing.’ ”
Mr. Lake’s trip was part of an effort to draw attention to the state of Syria’s children as the war enters its fourth year. He said the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, as well as the governor of the rebel-held Homs, had told him that the government would make sure that food, medicine and vaccinations against polio and measles reached children in that city, which is under a government blockade. Even if access improves, Mr. Lake said, it will not be enough.
Unicef estimates that three million Syrian children are unable to attend school regularly. “If these children grow up without skills because they’ve lost years of education,” Mr. Lake said, and have “hatred in their hearts because of what they’ve seen, the coming years and the next generation is going to replicate the same hatred we are seeing now.”
“That will be a great danger for Syria, the region and the whole world,” he said.
Among refugees in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, he said, he spoke to children who at first blush seemed resilient.
“They’ll laugh, they’ll smile, they’ll play games,” he said. “Then you point to a picture they drew. You can see their faces crumple. They point to a house they drew — and it’s almost invariably a house — they’ll say, ‘That was my house.’ And this look of incredible sadness.”
At the United Nations, Mr. Brahimi, the mediator, was unequivocal while discussing the planned Syrian elections before the General Assembly. Echoing what he told the Security Council the day before, he said, “I very much doubt that a presidential election and another seven-year term for President Bashar al-Assad will put an end to the unbearable suffering of the Syrian people, stop the destruction of the country and re-establish harmony and mutual confidence in the region.”
That was met with a scolding from the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, who said he had told the envoy to “behave.” The ambassador said scheduling elections was an internal matter. “Sometimes special representatives go beyond their mandates,” he told reporters. “You have to remind them: ‘You have limits. Don’t go beyond your limits.’ ”
Mr. Brahimi is 80, and, according to colleagues, thick-skinned.
The Syrian Parliament has set residency rules for presidential candidates, which could prevent many of Mr. Assad’s opponents who live in exile from running. Under Syrian law, elections must be held 60 to 90 days before Mr. Assad’s term ends on July 17, news agencies reported.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main opposition group, said any call for an election would be a “breaking point,” but stopped short of saying it would pull out of talks. “Free and fair elections cannot be held in Syria in the present violent circumstances,” the coalition said in a statement.
At a news briefing at the United Nations, Hadi al-Bahra, the opposition’s chief negotiator, said he was not optimistic about Mr. Brahimi’s trip to Iran. “I don’t think Iran is serious about addressing the political transition in Syria,” he said.