Assad: No dialogue while ‘terrorists’ spread chaos

Syrian leader rebuffs UN-Arab League envoy as his forces kill dozens in Idlib, Homs.

Damaged houses, vehicles in Homs, Syria_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Damaged houses, vehicles in Homs, Syria_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Syria’s President Bashar Assad rebuffed the UN-Arab League envoy to his country Saturday, telling Kofi Annan no political solution was possible to the crisis while “terrorist” groups were spreading chaos.
“Syria is ready to make a success of any honest effort to find a solution for the events it is witnessing,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling Annan, a former UN secretary-general.
“No political dialogue or political activity can succeed while there are armed terrorist groups operating and spreading chaos and instability,” Assad said.
A UN spokesman said Annan had made proposals on stopping the violence and the killing, access for humanitarian agencies, release of detainees and the start of political dialogue.
The talks were “candid and comprehensive,” said Annan, who will meet Assad again on Sunday.
While Annan and Assad discussed the crisis, Syrian troops were assaulting the northwestern city of Idlib, a rebel bastion.
“Regime forces have just stormed into Idlib with tanks and heavy shelling is now taking place,” an activist said.
Sixteen rebel fighters, seven soldiers and four civilians were killed in the Idlib fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said 15 other people, including three soldiers, had been killed in violence elsewhere.
In Washington, an Obama administration official said it is exploring options to halt the bloodshed in Syria but is deeply skeptical of military intervention out of fear it could worsen the humanitarian crisis.
In a briefing with a small group of reporters on Friday, the official contrasted the situation in Syria with Libya, where a NATO campaign bolstered rebels who eventually toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year.
There was a “very viable” military option in Libya that involved stopping the advance of Gaddafi’s forces and creating civilian protection zones, but those conditions do not exist in Syria, the official said.
“In Syria, it’s a much more difficult environment because you basically have regime security forces that are in many respects intermingled with the population,” he said.
“A lot of the catastrophic violence is taking place through artillery, through shelling, through snipers. And for those reasons, there’s not simple military options that present themselves,” he said, adding that part of what concerns the White House is that military intervention might “escalate the humanitarian crisis without solving the problem.”
The United States has drafted a fresh UN Security Council resolution on Syria, but the State Department said on Friday it was not optimistic its text would be accepted by the council.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met Annan in Cairo earlier in the day, told the Arab League his country was “not protecting any regime,” but did not believe the Syrian crisis could be blamed on one side alone. He called for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid access, but Qatar and Saudi Arabia sharply criticized Moscow’s stance.
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Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who has led calls for Assad to be isolated and for Syrian rebels to be armed, said a ceasefire was not enough. Syrian leaders must be held accountable and political prisoners freed, he declared.
“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 said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said shortcomings in the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions on Syria, had allowed the killing to continue.
France says it will oppose any measure that holds the Syrian government and its foes equally responsible for the bloodshed.
Despite their differences, Lavrov and Arab ministers said they had agreed on the need for an end to violence in Syria.
They also called for unbiased monitoring of events there, opposition to foreign intervention, delivery of humanitarian aid and support for Annan’s peace efforts.
The exiled opposition Syrian National Council, in a statement on its website, ruled out talks while Assad remains in power.
“Negotiations can never take place between the victim and torturer: Assad and his entourage must step down as a condition before starting any serious negotiations,” it said.
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.
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 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.
The Syrian opposition denies any al-Qaida role in the uprising, but Islamists are among rebels who have taken up arms against Assad under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad chided Russia for accepting the Syrian government’s portrayal of insurgents as armed gangs.
“There are no armed gangs, the systematic killing came from the Syrian government side for many months. After that, the people were forced to defend themselves so the regime labeled them armed gangs,” he told the Arab League meeting.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Lavrov in New York on Monday when the Security Council holds a special meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be in focus.
But French foreign minister Alain Juppe said Saturday he was pessimistic over the chances of a Security Council resolution on Syria.
“We were hoping that once the elections in Russia were over dialogue with the Russian authorities could be more consensual,” Juppe said at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Copenhagen.
“But for the moment this hope has not been confirmed... Russia continues to block it on different points and there is not an agreement on the text of this resolution,” he said. “I don’t know if things will evolve here between now and Monday.”