x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Assad is 'playing for time' on peace

The Syrian opposition says that President Bashar Al Assad's decision to comply with a UN peace plan is just a ploy for time.

A handout photo made available by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows Syrian President Bashar Al Assad touring the Baba Amr neighbourhood in Homs on Tuesday. It was Mr Al Assad's first visit to Baba Amr since dozens died in a month-long shelling on the area in February.
A handout photo made available by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows Syrian President Bashar Al Assad touring the Baba Amr neighbourhood in Homs on Tuesday. It was Mr Al Assad's first visit to Baba Amr since dozens died in a month-long shelling on the area in February.

BEIJING // Opposition leaders accused Bashar Al Assad of playing for time yesterday after the Syrian president agreed to special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan to end the violence.

“It’s only a game to win some more time to continue with the killing,” said Naji Tayara, a member of the foreign relations committee of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition umbrella group.

Mr Tayara was speaking to The National in Istanbul during a meeting to try to unite the fractious Syrian opposition.

Mr Annan, a special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League and a former UN secretary general, arrived in Beijing yesterday to seek China’s support for ending the bloodshed.

The Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, told Mr Annan his efforts were key to resolving a crisis that the UN estimates has killed 9,000 people. The Syrian government says more than 2,000 of its forces have also died.

A spokesman for Mr Annan said yesterday his proposals had been endorsed by the regime in Damascus, which has faced growing international anger over its repression of opposition.

But Mr Tayara said he did not believe Mr Al Assad wanted to end the fighting. “If he really accepts the Annan mission, why is he continuing the fighting and the killing of people and children?” he said. “He’s a killer, he is always trying to run.”

Mr Annan’s plan, backed by a non-binding UN Security Council vote, includes an end to fighting, government troops returning to barracks and a daily two-hour ceasefire to allow aid to be delivered to the worst-hit areas and the wounded taken to hospital.

His spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said Syria’s endorsement was an important first step, but implementation would be critical.

Mr Annan said he hoped to work with the Syrian authorities to translate the plan into action, but he told the Chinese premier he also needed the assistance of the international community.

“I cannot do this job alone. I need help. I need support and advice from countries like yours and that’s why I am here,” Mr Annan said.

“And I know you’ve already been helpful, but this is going to be a long and difficult task and I am sure that together we can make a difference.”

Russia and China have twice vetoed UN Security Council resolutions calling for tougher action against Syria.

The UN proposals also call for Syrian-led talks over the country’s political future, although no deadlines are included and Mr Annan has said it is up to the Syrians to decide if they want Mr Al Assad to stay as leader.

Mr Wen yesterday told Mr Annan efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis were at a critical juncture. “We believe that your mediation efforts will lead to progress in seeking a solution to the Syrian issue,” he said.

China and Russia were heavily criticised for vetoing two UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime for its response to the year-long uprising. But Beijing and Moscow backed the non-binding Security Council statement this month that there would be unspecified “further steps” if Mr Al Assad did not comply with Mr Annan’s proposals.

Before travelling to China, Mr Annan received an endorsement for his plan from the outgoing Russian president, DmitryMedvedev, who said the proposals represented the last chance to prevent civil war in Syria.

China’s wariness about uprisings in the Middle East stems partly from fears that calls for democracy and reform could spread and undermine its own rule. It is concerned about the implications foreign intervention in Syria might have for its efforts to contain instability in Tibet and Xinjiang province.

China is keen for Mr Annan’s mission to succeed partly because of the criticism it received for vetoing the UN resolutions, said Joseph Cheng, a foreign affairs analyst at Hong Kong’s City University.

“It shows its earlier position was meaningful. It acted to try to avoid any military action on the part of the western countries,” he said.

But he said China had learnt a lesson after achieving little by sending its own envoys to Syria, other Arab countries and Europe.

“I think China understands its limitations better now. It will try to avoid taking action where its influence is insufficient.”

Syrian opposition groups have been meeting in Istanbul, at a conference called by Turkey and Qatar – the head of the Arab League – to form a united front before a major conference on Syria in Istanbul on Sunday.

The conference of the Friends of Syria, a group of about 80 western and Arab countries, is scheduled to address ways to increase pressure on Mr Al Assad’s government. The opposition is hoping to receive stronger international recognition as well as aid and support.

Mr Tayara said yesterday’s opposition meeting hit a snag when Haitham Al Maleh, a veteran human-rights activist and dissident, walked out in protest at what he saw as an excessive dominance of the SNC over other groups.

Mr Maleh quit the SNC this month, but still came to the Istanbul meeting.

Despite his walkout, the meeting was expected to end with a joint statement of principles signed by the SNC and other groups, Mr Tayara said. Further meetings aimed at making the SNC more efficient, inclusive and transparent will take place today.

Molham Aldrobi, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood who is also a member of the SNC’s foreign relations committee, said the meeting had succeeded in giving the anti-Assad groups a unified front.

dbardsley@thenational.ae

tseibert@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Thomas Seibert in Istanbul