DAMASCUS // Mediation efforts by Kofi Annan, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, have failed to halt the spiralling violence, but they may yet help solve the year-long crisis, say some opposition activists.
The former UN secretary general received replies to his peace proposals from the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, late on Tuesday.
No details about the proposals or what the reply was have been made public, although Mr Annan is believed to have called for a ceasefire and talks between the regime and opposition.
The Joint Special Envoy [JSE] for Syria, Kofi Annan, has now received a response from the Syrian authorities.
"The JSE has questions and is seeking answers," said his spokesman in a statement yesterday, stressing that the "crisis cannot be allowed to drag on".
Media reports suggest the Syrian authorities asked for clarifications about Mr Annan's plan, a step likely to open a lengthy process of diplomatic to-and-fro.
Meanwhile, violence has intensified with dozens of civilians murdered in Homs and deadly military operations under way across much of the country.
The scale of the task facing the joint United Nations-Arab League envoy was confirmed by an influential member of Syria's ruling Baath party. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said the authorities were open to diplomatic efforts but that armed rebel groups would have to unconditionally lay down their weapons in advance of any negotiations.
"There can only be dialogue if the terrorists and foreign fighters are withdrawn, the weapons smuggling stops and the media campaign against Syria is ended," he said.
"Then we can sit and talk and have a political solution but, if the opposition prefers to fight, then let it. They will lose."
Syria's fractured opposition has similarly ruled out negotiations with the regime unless it first halts military operations and frees thousands of political prisoners.
Nonetheless, some activists inside Syria, including those who held talks with Mr Annan during his recent visit - the UN envoy also met Mr Al Assad twice over the weekend - say this latest diplomatic initiative can bring real pressure to bear on the Syrian regime and, therefore, has a chance to succeed where others have failed.
"Diplomatic efforts are still in their opening phase so we should not dismiss them, the plans and positions of all interested parties are still evolving," said Abdul Aziz Al Kheyr, a leading member of the National Coordination Committee, one of the major opposition groups based inside Syria. He took part in talks with Mr Annan.
"It has always been an illusion to think there will be a fast or simple solution for Syria and it will take even more time than it has," Dr Al Kheyr said. "The most important thing is to keep up the pressure on the regime, from inside and internationally, until it understands the simple truth - that it cannot win this by military power."
Getting that message through, he said, would involve more sacrifices from Syrian protesters, and deepening economic hardship, but that it would eventually hit home. Mr Annan's mission would also help achieve that goal, he said, and was already making progress in making an intransigent authority - long accustomed to ruling with total impunity - even consider a ceasefire proposal.
The Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition-in-exile group, has taken a different position, saying a recent atrocity in the Karm Al Zietoun area of Homs, in which 45 civilians were butchered, proved foreign military intervention and direct support for armed rebel groups were necessary to stop the regime's campaign of violence.
The opposition blames government militia groups of carrying out the atrocity, while regime officials say armed rebels were responsible.
However another activist, Louay Hussein, who also met with Mr Annan in Damascus, warned against declaring the UN mission a failure prematurely.
"Nether the regime nor the opposition are ready to enter into real negotiations yet," said Mr Hussein, a prominent independent dissident.
"Annan's mission is to try to bring about a situation where talks and a political solution are possible and this will require time."
Acknowledging the UN envoy faced an almost impossible task, Mr Hussein said Russian and Chinese backing for the mission had given it an opportunity to succeed.
Moscow and Beijing have provided crucial diplomatic cover in the United Nations Security Council for Mr Al Assad, twice using their vetoes to prevent critical resolutions being passed.
"Russia and China are what is important diplomatically, what they say is more important than what the regime says," said Mr Hussein. "They are backing Mr Annan's mission and that gives it a chance."
While any international consensus remains far off, with the West and Russia in particular still at loggerheads over the Syria crisis, some activists in Damascus say Moscow and Beijing are cautiously upping pressure on Mr Al Assad.
As evidence, they cite the countries' backing for Mr Annan's mission and insistence that UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos be allowed into the devastated Baba Amr district of Homs.
More than 8,000 civilians and defecting soldiers have been killed by the security service since the uprising began in March, according to the United Nations and human rights monitors. Syrian officials say upwards of 2,000 security personnel have been killed in the same period.
Lightly armed rebel factions and defectors have increasingly taken up arms in support of thousands of peaceful protesters calling for democracy, with the conflict increasingly resembling a civil war. The regime says it is facing a foreign backed insurgency by "Islamic terrorists".