Annan 'optimistic' over proposals to end Syrian crisis


UN-ARAB LEAGUE envoy Kofi Annan was upbeat yesterday after a second day of talks in Damascus with President Bashar al-Assad after handing over “concrete proposals” to end the Syrian crisis.

Mr Annan said the proposals would “have a real impact on the situation on the ground and . . . help launch a [political] process” involving “reforms that would create a solid foundation for a democratic Syria”.

A UN official accompanying the organisation’s former secretary general told CBS news Mr Annan “ended very candid, positive talks with Assad, and he feels very optimistic that he is making a breakthrough”. Before that meeting, Mr Annan held consultations with Greek Orthodox Christian patriarch Zakka Iwas and the senior Sunni Muslim authority, Sheikh Badr al-Din Hassoun, whose son was assassinated in an ambush in Idlib province last year.

Mr Annan is set to travel to Qatar, Cairo and New York be- fore returning “pretty soon” to Damascus, the official stated.

On Saturday, the outlook of the mission had appeared bleak when, during their first encounter, Dr Assad said the government could not hold dialogue with the opposition “as long as there are armed terrorist groups that work to spread anarchy and destabilise the country”. His words coincided with reports of a fresh military offensive against the north-western rebel stronghold of Idlib, a city of 160,000 near the Turkish border. But the fighting was said to have subsided, suggesting the rebels had withdrawn.

Mr Annan also met the leaders of several Damascus-based opposition groups, largely sidelined by the western-backed Syrian National Council, comprised of seven exile groups.

Among the local figures he met were Hassan Abdel Azim of the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, Abdel Aziz al-Khair of the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change, Louay Hussein of Building the Syrian State, and former legislator Riad Seif.

Mr Azim said: “The main challenge . . . is to push the regime to ceasefire, address the military aspects [of the crisis], and provide relief” to needy Syrians.

Once these tasks were achieved, Mr Annan could launch a political process, Mr Aziz said, adding that the crisis was already threatening the unity of the country. Mr Annan and the domestic opposition are against militarisation of the conflict through arming rebels and external military intervention.

The national council, backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has sought both, risking civil war and regional unrest, and has rejected negotiations with the government.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is to meet her Russian counterpart today when the UN Security Council meets to discuss Arab unrest. Moscow opposes a new US-drafted resolution on Syria because it does not call for government and rebel forces to cease fire simultaneously.

US intelligence reports say Dr Assad continues to command the loyalty of a strong army and of his inner circle, in spite of the rebel campaign to topple him and the erosion of the economy – indicating the struggle for Syria could last for months.