Annan urges end to Syria violence, official defects

Turkey rules out Western intervention, but analyst says UN consensus could prod Ankara to toe the line.

By OREN KESSLER
March 8, 2012 21:27
KOFI ANAN with Nabil Elaraby

KOFI ANAN with Nabil Elaraby 390. (photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

 
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Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, said on Thursday he would urge President Bashar Assad and his foes to stop fighting and seek a political solution, drawing angry rebukes from dissidents.

As world pressure on Syria mounts, the deputy oil minister announced his defection, the first by a senior civilian official since the start of the yearlong popular uprising against Assad, whose Ba’ath party marked 49 years in power on Thursday.

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“I, Abdo Hussameldin, deputy oil and mineral wealth minister in Syria, announce my defection from the regime, resignation from my position and withdrawal from the Ba’ath Party,” Hussameldin said in a video, the authenticity of which could not be immediately confirmed.

“I join the revolution of this dignified people,” he said, adding that he had been in government for 33 years but did not want to end his career “serving the crimes of this regime.”

“I have preferred to do what is right although I know that this regime will burn my house and persecute my family,” he said.

Annan argued against the further militarization of the conflict, while Turkey, a neighbor of Syria, declared its opposition to intervention by any force from outside the region.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on Thursday that such an intervention could be subject to exploitation.

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Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that while Turkey is still hesitant to back military action in Syria, the formation of an international consensus could make Ankara more amenable to the prospect of intervention.

“Turkey really values UN consensus. Like all middle-sized powers, it is not a superpower and cannot act purely independently. Turkey values UN-granted legitimacy,” he told The Jerusalem Post.

Cagaptay – who recently visited Syrian refugee camps in southern Turkey – said many he encountered there are pessimistic about prospects for a swift resolution of the crisis.

“When you talk to people in Ankara and Istanbul, what you hear is similar to what you’d hear in Washington: ‘Assad will inevitably fall; he’s in serious trouble,’” Cagaptay said. But in southern Turkey, he said, people are more skeptical about how long it will take for him to fall.

“Their general sense there is that the Free Syrian Army isn’t on par with Assad’s military machine. Though people in the FSA are doing great things, it’s not real competition for the regime – it lacks both the equipment and the organization.”

Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met on Wednesday night with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who has advocated arming the rebels and creating an Arab peacekeeping force to intervene in Syria.

Over the coming weeks, Turkey is expected to host a second meeting of foreign ministers from the “Friends of Syria,” grouping mostly Arab and Western governments, to follow up on talks in Tunis last month aimed at finding ways to rein in Assad.

Tunisian President Moncef al-Marzouki said his country, which has offered Assad asylum to end the bloodshed, would be ready to join an Arab peacekeeping force in Syria.

On the ground in Syria, security forces shot and wounded three mourners on Thursday at a Damascus funeral for an army defector that turned into a protest against Assad.

The funeral was taking place in the capital’s Mezze district, home to several embassies and security facilities and overlooked by Assad’s hilltop palace, when it came under fire.

Annan, who is due in Damascus on Saturday, said on a visit to Cairo, “The killing has to stop and we need to find a way of putting in the appropriate reforms and moving forward.

“We should not forget the possible impact of Syria on the region if there is any miscalculation,” he said, adding that he would ask the government and its opponents to come together to find a political settlement.

But one Syrian opposition activist voiced alarm at Annan’s call for dialogue, saying it sounded “like a wink at Bashar” that would only encourage Assad to “crush the revolution.”

“We reject any dialogue while tanks shell our towns, snipers shoot our women and children and many areas are cut off from the world by the regime without electricity, communications or water,” Hadi Abdullah said from Homs.

An officer in the rebel FSA said diplomatic initiatives had proved fruitless in the past. “When they fail, no action is taken against the regime and that’s why the opposition has to arm itself against its executioner,” he said.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos – who has preceded Annan in traveling to Syria – said she was “devastated” by the destruction she had seen in the Baba Amr district of Homs and wanted to know what had happened to its residents. The neighborhood endured a 26-day military siege before rebel fighters withdrew a week ago.

Amos is the first senior foreign official to visit Baba Amr since the government assault, which activists said ended in reprisals by Assad loyalists. A Syrian Arab Red Crescent team that accompanied her there on Wednesday found few inhabitants among the ruins.

Western powers have shied away from Libya-style military intervention in Syria, at the heart of a conflict- prone Middle East, but some US lawmakers have asked how many Syrians must die before US President Barack Obama’s administration uses force.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday defended US caution, especially without international consensus on Syria, but said the Pentagon had reviewed military options.

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Syrian activists say any prospects of a negotiated deal with Assad disappeared long ago in government repression.

China, one of Assad’s few friends abroad, said its envoy had given his Syrian hosts a message similar to Annan’s, urging all parties to stop violence and allow aid into strife-hit areas.

Beijing is trying to counter Western and Arab charges that it, along with Russia, has colluded in Assad’s repression of dissent by twice vetoing UN resolutions criticizing him.

The world has failed to stop an unequal struggle pitting mostly Sunni demonstrators and lightly armed rebels against the armored might of Assad’s 300,000-strong military, secret police and feared Alawite militiamen.

Syrian activist groups said the army, after its onslaught on Homs, is preparing to attack rebel bastions in Idlib province, a mountainous area in the northwest that borders Turkey.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said it was preparing food supplies for 1.5 million Syrians as part of a 90-day emergency plan.

“More needs to be done,” John Ging of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is headed by Amos, told a Syria Humanitarian Forum in Geneva.

The UN World Food Program said it had distributed some supplies in Syria through local aid agencies, but had not reached people in the areas worst hit by the violence.

Syria’s ambassador in Geneva, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, accused armed groups of destroying civilian facilities.

Mikhail Lebedev, Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, agreed, saying: “Rebel groups attack, kill, torture and intimidate the civilian population. The flow of all kind of terrorists from some neighboring countries is always increasing. Most of the militants are directly or closely affiliated with al-Qaida.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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