BEIRUT -- The new international envoy responsible for seeking peace in war-ravaged Syria called the situation in that country "very, very grim" and said he had given President Bashar Assad a pointed message: Reform alone won't resolve the crisis.
"I told everybody in Damascus and elsewhere that reform is not enough anymore," Lakhdar Brahimi, special envoy for the United Nations and the Arab League, told reporters in New York. "What is needed is change."
The Syrian president has insisted that his "reform" agenda -- centered on a new constitution that the opposition calls a sham -- is sufficient to meet what even Assad has called Syrians' legitimate demands for change.
Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat who assumed his post earlier this month, seemed to suggest that Assad's formula fell short, though he did not criticize the Syrian president directly.
"You cannot go back to the Syria of the past," Brahimi said in comments broadcast live. "You cannot go backward."
The situation in Syria, Brahimi said, "is extremely bad, and getting worse." The violence there "is a threat to the region and a threat to peace and security in the world."
The envoy, who spoke after a closed-door meeting with the U.N. Security Council, said he had no "full plan for the moment," but that he did have "a few ideas." He declined to elaborate, but said: "I think that we will find an opening in the not too distant future."
Brahimi characterized as disappointing the fractious nature of the Syrian opposition, which is divided both politically and militarily and unable to launch a united front.
The lack of unity has troubled Washington and other capitals that have called for Assad to step down but have been hesitant to throw their weight behind any specific opposition faction. Scores of armed militias with varying philosophies and funding sources are fighting inside Syria to overthrow Assad's government.
Brahimi replaced Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, who resigned last month in frustration, calling the envoy's job "mission impossible." Upon resigning, Annan suggested that Assad's intransigence was part of the problem and said the president should step down from office. It was a position Annan never advocated publicly while serving as envoy and traveling back and forth to Damascus for talks with Assad and others.
Brahimi has already visited Damascus and met with Assad. He has also met with regional leaders and with Syrian refugees along the Syrian-Turkish border.
The Security Council is deeply divided on Syria, and there were no indications Monday that those divisions had been bridged. Russia and China have blocked several proposals that could have led to sanctions or other actions against Assad's government.
Opponents of Assad have called his reform agenda phony and boycotted votes on the new constitution and the subsequent new parliament seated in Damascus. Much of the opposition has insisted on the ouster of Assad, whose family has ruled the nation in autocratic fashion for more than 40 years.
Assad has refused opposition demands that he step down and has blamed the violence wracking Syria on a "foreign conspiracy," stoked by Islamic militants supported by the Persian Gulf states and neighboring Turkey.
It is estimated that more than 20,000 people have died in violence that has wracked Syria for more than 18 months.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Special envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, right, arrives Monday for a meeting with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, left, in New York. Credit: Sven Hoppe / EPA