Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, has met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus amid a fresh assault by the government on a restive city in the country’s northwest.
The short midday meeting at a hotel in Damascus was characterised as occurring with a “positive atmosphere,” Syrian state media said. Neither man made a public statement afterward
But elsewhere in the country, violence continued. Witnesses told Al Jazeera that Syrian army tanks supported by soldiers on foot entered the city of Idlib at around 6am on Saturday, supported by artillery and mortar fire. Tanks on the southwestern edge of the city were also firing into Idlib, and helicopters were hovering overhead, they said.
The violence raised the stakes for Annan’s high-profile mission to find a political resolution under the auspices of the Arab League and United Nations, an effort that has met with disapproval from the country’s most prominent opposition bloc.
Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said on Friday that Annan’s visit will amount to a waste of time without military pressure on Assad’s government.
Annan has said that “militarisation” of the conflict will only make it worse, while the SNC has repeatedly called for foreign military intervention. Ghalioun and other activists say dialogue with Assad’s government is impossible as long as its security crackdown continues.
Some Gulf states, most notably Qatar, have called for arming Syrian rebels and sending a peacekeeping force. On Saturday, Qatar called for recognising the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
China and Russia, after blocking Arab and UN resolutions seeking to usher an end to Assad’s rule, are now seeking to negotiate with Arab leaders.
Lavrov gets tough response
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Cairo on Saturday to meet with Arab League foreign ministers, said Russia wants to bring about an immediate end to the violence in Syria but that the current approach from other nations was unrealistic because it held only Assad’s government, and not the rebels, responsible.
Lavrov faced a tough audience, with many Arab countries angered by Russia’s multiple vetos of UN Security Council resolutions.
Qatar’s representative criticised Russia and China, saying they sent the wrong signal to Assad and that “patience has run out”. He also called again for sending Arab peacekeepers into Syria.
“We must send a message to the Syrian regime that the world’s patience and our patience has run out, as has the time for silence about its practices,” Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said Russia’s vetos “gave the Syrian regime a licence to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people”.
He said he hoped that Russia will now support Arab League efforts.
Lavrov said Russia was not protecting any government in the Middle East and that its primary interest was in immediately halting the violence in Syria and allowing in humanitarian aid, but that both rebel and government forces must withdraw from cities first.
“We are protecting international law … We are not looking for a special prize or geopolitical interest here,’ he said.
Lavrov also said it was not time to assign blame for the crisis, and that such an investigation could come afterward under the guidance of a body recognised to enforce international law.
Violence continues in Idlib
Assad’s crackdown has not abated since army troops recently pushed fighters out of Baba Amr, an opposition district in Homs, a western city near the Lebanese border.
On Friday, 54 people were killed acros the country, almost half of them during government raids in the nearby Idlib province, according to the London-based opposition activists’ group, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Ten people were killed by gun and mortar fire in Homs, and security forces shot dead others around the country during protests, the group said. Five more bodies were found in Baba Amr.
“Thirty tanks entered my neighbourhood at seven this morning and they are using their cannons to fire on houses,” said Karam Abu Rabea, a resident in Homs’s Karam al-Zeitoun neighbourhood.
This week’s regular Friday protest marked the anniversary of Kurdish unrest in Syria in 2004 when about 30 people were killed.
Thousands of Kurds demonstrated in northeastern cities, YouTube footage showed, some carrying banners that read “Save the Syrian people”.
Other clips showed hundreds of protesters in the Assali district of Damascus, burning posters of Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad and chanting “God damn your soul, Hafez”.
Speaking in the Turkish capital, Ankara, on Friday, Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief, said she was “struck” by the devastation she saw during a visit to Homs on Wednesday.
She said she had made a request to the Syrian government for unhindered access to the worst-hit areas, but the government had asked for more time.
The Syrian government had agreed to join UN agencies in a “limited assessment” of the situation, she said.
The UN estimates that at least 7,500 people have died since protests first broke out a year ago.
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