Syria says it won’t be first to lay down arms
By ZEINA KARAM, BEIRUT (AP) — Syria rejected international envoy Kofi Annan’s call for the regime to halt violence first just days after the government agreed to a cease-fire plan. A senior official declared victory over the opposition.
It was the government’s first response to an appeal by Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy, to stop military operations first as “the stronger party” in a “gesture of good faith” to the lightly armed opposition. Annan brokered the agreement aimed at stopping the bloodshed and Assad agreed to it on Monday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi said the government will not pull tanks and troops from towns and cities engulfed by unrest before life returns to normal there.
“The battle to bring down the state in Syria has already ended and the battle of reinforcing stability has started,” Makdessi said in an apparent reference to a string of recent regime offensives that drove rebels from key strongholds. He spoke on state TV late Friday.
Activists reported fresh violence Saturday that killed more than two dozen people. The U.N. estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising to oust Assad began a year ago.
The Foreign Ministry statement raised serious doubts about whether Annan’s plan to end the conflict will even get off the ground.
The six-point proposal requires the government to immediately pull troops and heavy weapons out of cities and towns, and abide by a two-hour halt in fighting every day to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations.
The government stance was reminiscent of a failed mediation attempt by the Arab League around the start of the new year. Assad also agreed to that plan to pull tanks and artillery out of cities and allow in foreign monitors in to assess compliance. But the mission ended in failure and Assad ultimately did not comply with the terms of the agreement he had signed on to.
The government blames armed groups carrying out a foreign conspiracy for the violence.
The opposition said the government appears to be playing for time by indicating broad agreement with the plan but then quibbling over or ignoring the details. A similar accusation was made when Assad agreed to the first Arab League plan.
Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, said it was clear Assad’s acceptance of Annan’s peace plan was another “lie and a maneuver” to gain time.
“We have no illusions over the possibility of the mission’s success because Bashar Assad and the Syrian regime have no credibility to engage in a political process,” he said at a news conference in Istanbul.
“It will soon become obvious the regime won’t even implement the first clause of the agreement.”
Syria’s uprising has become increasingly militarized and opposition groups now say their only hope is to drive out Assad. International opponents of Assad are struggling to pin down a strategy, as the peace plan put forward by Annan falters right out of the gate.
“The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side,” Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters in Geneva on Friday. “We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith … The deadline is now.”
Assad promised on Thursday to “spare no effort” to make sure Annan’s plan succeeds. But he demanded that armed forces battling his regime commit to halt violence as well.
Makdessi claimed the military is in populated areas “in a state of self defense and protecting civilians.”
“The Syrian army is not happy to be present in residential areas,” Makdessi said. “Once peace and security prevail in these areas, the army will not stay nor wait for Kofi Annan to leave. This is a Syrian matter.”
For the U.S. and its allies, Syria is proving an especially murky conflict with no easy solutions. Assad’s regime is one of Washington’s toughest foes, a government that has long been closely allied with Iran and anti-Israel groups Hamas and Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers terrorist.
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led Gulf countries are eager to see Assad’s fall in hopes of breaking Syria out of its alliance with their regional rival, Shiite-majority Iran. The regime is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the opposition is Sunni dominated.
The Saudi foreign minister and the Syrian opposition called for arming the opposition so it can defend itself from Assad’s “killing machine.”
The calls came on the eve of a 60-nation “Friends of the Syrian People” gathering to be held in Turkey Sunday to discuss additional steps to increase pressure on the Syrian regime even as it boasts of having defeated those seeking to topple Assad.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said what the Syrian regime has done against its people “is nothing less than crimes against humanity.”
Speaking at a joint news conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, al-Faisal called for arming the opposition and an immediate cease-fire.
“The arming of the opposition is a duty, I believe, because it cannot defend itself without weapons,” he said. Clinton replied: “Very well said.”
Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among the most impatient and have spoken about possible military intervention, from arming Syria’s badly overmatched rebels to creating safe zones from which the rebels can operate.
Washington remains opposed to arming the rebels, fearing a military escalation could lead to all-out civil war and play into Assad’s hands, considering his vastly more powerful military.
Opposition leader Ghalioun also made an appeal for arming the opposition.
“We have called for the need to arm the Free Syrian Army so that it may defend the lives of the Syrian people. … We hope the friends of Syria will adopt our position,” he said. The Free Syria Army, made up mostly of army defectors, is the opposition’s most potent fighting force.
Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said Syrian troops foiled an infiltration attempt by gunmen from Lebanon into a village near the western town of Talkalakh. SANA said troops confiscated weapons and killed and wounded some of the infiltrators as others fled back into Lebanon.
In other violence, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops killed at least 25 people Saturday, mostly in the southern province of Daraa, the northwestern province of Idlib and the central region of Homs.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said security forces killed 36 people Saturday, nine of them in Idlib and eight in Homs.