Annan meets Syria’s Assad to press for ceasefire
BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday to press for a political solution to Syria’s year-long uprising and bloody crackdown in which thousands of people have been killed.
Syrian television reported that the two men had begun talks in the presidential palace. Annan met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Cairo before flying to Damascus in a mark of the pivotal part Moscow, one of Assad’s few foreign friends, could play in a solution.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov had reiterated Moscow’s calls for an end to violence and the start of dialogue, and emphasized its opposition to foreign interference. Annan “confirmed his intention of interacting actively with Russia in resolving the Syrian crisis”, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.
Annan also plans to meet Syrian dissidents before leaving Damascus on Sunday. He has called for a political solution, but the opposition says the time for dialogue is over.
“We support any initiative that aims to stop the killings but we reject it if it is going to give Bashar more time to break the revolution and keep him in power,” Melham al-Droubi, a Saudi-based member of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the exiled Syrian National Council, told Reuters by telephone.
“We hope that Annan convinces Bashar to stop the killings, step down and call for a parliamentary election,” he said, expressing skepticism that Assad would respond positively.
Annan’s trip to Damascus followed a violent day in which activists said Assad’s forces killed at least 72 people as they bombarded parts of the rebellious city of Homs and sought to deter demonstrators and crush insurgents elsewhere.
Two soldiers and three rebels were killed in overnight clashes in the town of Daraya on the southeastern outskirts of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Decisive victory has eluded both sides in an increasingly deadly struggle that began as a mainly peaceful protest movement a year ago and now appears to be sliding into civil war.
The United Nations estimates that Syrian security forces have killed well over 7,500 people. Syria said in December that “terrorists” had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.
Lavrov was due to meet Arab foreign ministers in Cairo later in the day on the sidelines of an Arab League meeting on Syria.
Russia and China vetoed a U.N. draft resolution last month which would have backed an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step aside as part of a detailed transition plan to democracy.
Both countries say they support Annan’s mission, but Russia has resisted Western and Arab demands for Assad to quit, saying no such outcome can be predetermined or imposed from outside.
“If (Annan) can persuade Russia to back a transitional plan, the regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a paper this week.
Annan had discussed his mission on Friday in a call with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the head of the Cairo-based Arab League, Nabil Elaraby.
“I have very strongly urged Kofi Annan to ensure that there must be an immediate ceasefire,” Ban told reporters in New York after the call. After a ceasefire, he said, there should be “inclusive political solutions” found through dialogue.
Chinese and Russian reluctance to approve any U.N. resolution on Syria stems partly from their fear that it could be used to justify a Libya-style military intervention, although Western powers deny any intention to go to war again in Syria.
Russia, an old ally of Damascus and its main arms supplier, has defended Assad against his Western and Arab critics.
A Russian diplomat said this week Assad was battling al Qaeda-backed militants, including 15,000 foreign fighters who would seize cities if Syrian troops withdrew.
The Syrian opposition denies any al Qaeda role in the uprising, but Islamists are among rebels who have taken up arms against Assad under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
France said it would not accept any U.N. Security Council resolution which would assign responsibility for the violence in Syria equally between the Syrian government and the opposition.
“There is no equivalence between the savage repression that Bashar al-Assad’s clan has perpetuated for months and the legitimate desire of the Syrian people for the respect of their rights,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe denied Russian suggestions the West was seeking a pretext for military action: “The option of any military intervention is not on the table,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov, her Russian counterpart, will meet in New York on Monday on the sidelines of a special U.N. Security Council ministerial meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be a central topic. Others taking part in the council session are Juppe and British Foreign Secretary William Hague. China will be represented at the ambassadorial level.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Shaimaa Fayed in Cairo, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Editing by Louise Ireland)