Saturday, 30 June 2012
By Al Arabiya with agencies
World powers meet Saturday in a desperate bid to salvage international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan for Syria to end 16 months of bloodshed and agree on a transition plan for the strife-hit country.
A crunch meeting hours ahead of the talks between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov led Moscow to issue an upbeat outlook for the conference, saying a deal was likely.
But Washington took a more cautious line, warning of persistent differences between the U.S.’ and Russia’s approach and dampening hopes of crucial progress needed to stop the crisis that according to rights monitors has left 15,800 dead since March last year.
Annan had announced the meeting on Tuesday, inviting Clinton, Lavrov, and the foreign ministers of Britain, China, France, Iraq, Qatar, Turkey and Kuwait to the talks, and conspicuously leaving Iran and Saudi Arabia out.
Meanwhile, Iran’s U.N. ambassador said on Friday that Iran could be a “heavyweight champion” of efforts to bring peace to Syria. Ambassador Mohammed Khazaee hit out at the Western powers, “particularly the United States,” for ignoring “the power and the influence of Iran.”
The United States and European nations opposed the presence of Iran, a long time ally of Assad. Diplomats said Russia opposed Saudi Arabia because of its support for the Syrian opposition.
Syrians ignore Annan’s plan
Annan circulated a proposal on a “Syrian-led transition” that could help save his peace process that has been largely ignored by both the ruling regime and opposition since it came in force on April 12.
Fighting has only intensified in recent weeks and rights monitors said more than 230 people — most of them civilians — had been killed across the strategic Middle East country since Thursday.
But doubts grew over the fate of Saturday’s meeting as it drew nearer, due to Russian opposition to Annan’s proposal on the composition of an interim Syrian government.
Annan’s draft, seen by AFP, sees power handed to an interim Syrian team without those “whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation.”
The wording appears to imply — without saying so directly — that President Assad would have to relinquish his grip on the presidency for the idea to succeed.
Russia angrily rejected the suggestion, while Western powers warned there was no point meeting in Geneva if there was no prior agreement on the issue.
But after Friday evening’s talks with Clinton, Lavrov said he “detected a shift” in Washington’s approach to ending the bloodshed that no longer involved a specific demand for Assad to leave.
“There were no ultimatums. Not a word was said about the document now being discussed in Geneva being completely untouchable,” Lavrov told reporters in reference to wording that suggest no future role for Assad.
“I can confidently say that we have a very good chance tomorrow in Geneva to find a common denominator and mark a path forward,” Lavrov added.
“We agreed to find a consensus that rests on a clear understanding… that the Syrian sides must be stimulated toward dialogue, but that the decision to what the state looks like and who occupies which posts can only be decided by the Syrians themselves.”
A conflicting message came from Lavrov’s deputy, Gennady Gatilov, who tweeted early on Saturday that experts in Geneva had thus far failed to agree to the wording of a final document on Syria because “the Western partners want to determine the political process themselves.”
The U.S. account of the Lavrov-Clinton meeting was also more measured and appeared to suggest little agreement on the future of Assad.
A senior U.S. State Department official noted some progress while conceding that “there were still areas of difficulty and difference” between the approaches of Russia and the United States.
“But out of respect to Kofi Annan, they agreed we should all go to Geneva tomorrow to try to produce a result,” said the official.
Bombardment of rebellious suburb
Syrian troops bombarded a rebellious suburb of the nation’s capital with tank and artillery shells Friday, killing dozens of people during a particularly bloody few days across the country, activists said.
The violence is part of a fierce government offensive aimed at regaining control of parts of Damascus suburbs where rebels operate. Major world powers were to meet Saturday in Geneva to hash out a political transition plan for Syria, which has been convulsed by more than 15 months of violence.
It’s difficult to get an accurate death toll in tightly controlled Syria, where journalists and human rights groups are either banned or severely restricted. But two opposition groups that compile and document casualties reported the death of more than 125 civilians in fighting across the country on Thursday alone.
Death tolls often take several days to compile because of the restrictions and chaos in the country.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday’s toll included more than 60 soldiers. If confirmed, it would be one of the highest death tolls on a single day since the start of the uprising against President Assad in March 2011.
Activists said at least 43 people were killed in more than two days of shelling in the sprawling Damascus suburb of Douma, which has been a hotbed of dissent and has put up strong resistance to the Assad regime. The dead included three children and five members of a single family.
A local activist who spoke on condition of anonymity to Reuters for security reasons said the shelling was “relentless” throughout Thursday, and exploding shells killed people in their homes.