Kofi Annan is heading to Syria to seek a political solution that the opposition says isn’t possible.
Annan, a former United Nations secretary general, is set to return to Damascus tomorrow, almost six years after persuading President Bashar al-Assad to back a cease-fire between Israel and his Hezbollah militia allies in Lebanon. This time, Annan is traveling as a UN special envoy seeking to negotiate an end to Assad's deadly crackdown on protesters, which has claimed more than 7,500 lives in the past year.
Annan, who is also representing the Arab League in his visit, told reporters yesterday in Cairo that he wanted to be “realistic” about his proposals and that he hoped “no one was thinking seriously” of using force to solve the conflict. His comments drew criticism from the Syrian National Council, the leading opposition alliance.
Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the SNC, called Annan “an international envoy who disappointed the Syrians with his first statement on the matter,” in an interview with Al Jazeera television. “I fear that the international committee is trying to buy time, and this is also what the Syrian people fear,” Ghalioun said. The council has “no hope” of a political solution, member Haitham al-Maleh told Al Jazeera.
Rising Death Toll
As special envoy appointed by the UN and the Arab League, Annan has the challenge of pressing Assad to stop the regime’s deadly crackdown on opponents as a prelude to negotiations on a political transition.
Syrian security forces attacked protesters at mosques in Damascus and the central city of Homs today, Al Arabiya television reported. Forty people were killed nationwide, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said on its website.
Valerie Amos, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, this week became the first envoy to visit the Baba Amr district of Homs after a monthlong siege by Assad’s forces.
“I was horrified by the destruction I saw,” Amos said in an e-mailed statement today. She said aid organizations must be given “unhindered access to evacuate the wounded and deliver desperately needed supplies.”
Four Syrian generals were among a group of army officers and civilians who arrived at a refugee camp in southern Turkey today, Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency reported. Deputy Oil Minister Abdo Hussameldin became the highest-level civilian official to defect, according to a statement he posted on YouTube that accused the government of atrocities.
Annan is scheduled to meet with the Syrian leader tomorrow. He will be accompanied by a deputy, Nasser Al-Kidwa, a Palestinian diplomat whose uncle was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The dispatch of the Ghanaian diplomat, who served as UN chief between 1997 and 2006, coincides with circulation this week of a third draft resolution to hold Assad accountable after two failed attempts by the UN Security Council to compel Assad to stop the killings.
The last top diplomat to see Assad in person was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Feb. 7, days after Russia and China blocked for a second time a Council resolution to condemn Assad as his forces were shelling the Homs.
Stopping off in Cairo to discuss his plan with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Arabi, Annan told reporters yesterday that military intervention would worsen the Syrian crisis. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have said they favor providing arms to the Syrian opposition.
Annan is signaling to Assad that he seeks a political solution while also warning him about how the landscape is shaping up, according to Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“The pressing question is whether he will next go to Washington and Moscow as he pieces together the elements of a deal,” Danin said in a telephone interview. “The key to ending the bloodshed rests more in Moscow because it is giving the critical support that allows the Syrian dictator to survive.”
Russia, which sells weapons to Syria, is facing growing international pressure to sever ties with a Soviet-era ally. Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union is a naval maintenance and supply center in the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean Sea.
Seeking a breakthrough, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov are set to meet on March 12 at the UN.
For his part, the former UN chief sounded a cautious note about whether his past relationship with Assad could help him be an effective peace broker.
“We haven’t been in touch for a couple of years, and so I will not presume anything,” Annan told reporters on Feb. 2. “We will make the demarches and time will tell.”