Last Updated: Wed May 09, 2012 00:00 am (KSA) 21:00 pm (GMT)

Syria fighting persists with fewer heavy arms, last chance to avoid civil war: Kofi Annan

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Kafranbel. The banner reads, “Urgent Annan asked the Syrian authority not to use the heavy weapons, means light weapons allowed.” (Reuters)
Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Kafranbel. The banner reads, “Urgent Annan asked the Syrian authority not to use the heavy weapons, means light weapons allowed.” (Reuters)

League mediator Kofi Annan told the Security Council on Tuesday that peace in Syria remains elusive nearly a month after a nationwide truce was announced, while Washington declared it was stepping up “non-lethal” aid to the opposition.

“The level of violence and abuses are unacceptable,” Annan told reporters after briefing the 15-nation council on his efforts to get President Bashar al-Assad to carry out his six-point plan.

Attacks by government forces are more “discreet” because of the presence of U.N. monitors, Annan told envoys, according to diplomats in the closed meeting who called his account a “somber” assessment of the 14-month-old conflict.

Annan said his plan is possibly “the last chance to avoid civil war”, diplomats said. He told the council he planned to return to Damascus but stressed that his peace bid was not an “open-ended” opportunity for the Syrian leader who is battling an increasingly bitter uprising.

The envoy reinforced his grim message about importance of his peace efforts to reporters in Geneva, from where he briefed the council by videoconference.

“I am sure I am not telling you any secret when I tell you that there is profound concern that the country could otherwise descend into full civil war and the implications of that are quite frightening,” he said.

“We cannot allow that to happen.”

U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon said on Monday the international community is now in a “race against time” to head off civil war in Syria, where the U.N. says well over 9,000 people have been killed.

Annan said he was particularly concerned that torture, mass arrests and other human rights violations are “intensifying,” according to diplomats at the meeting.

Even advocates of non-violence in the uprising against Assad have been detained, he said.

Assad bears “primary responsibility” for ending the military campaign and “creating an environment conducive to a political process” by withdrawing troops and heavy weapons from cities, he added.

The U.N. Security Council agreed to send 300 unarmed military observers to Syria to monitor the cessation of hostilities but the death toll has continued to mount.

The observer mission has an initial 90-day mandate running to mid-July, but the United States and other western nations have expressed doubts that it will be extended.

Sixty-one observers are now in six locations in Syria, said a U.N. peacekeeping spokesman, Andre-Michel Essoungou, and more than 100 are expected by the end of the week.

Annan and other U.N. officials say there has been a reduction in the use of heavy weapons in places where the observers are present.

Still far apart

The Security Council ended divisions over the Syria crisis to set up the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS). But the council’s powers are still far apart over the prospects for its success.

The United States has already warned that it could call for observers to be withdrawn before the 90 days is up if violence intensifies.

U.S. ambassador Susan Rice said “the situation in Syria remains dire, especially for the millions who continue to endure daily attacks and are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.”

“The United States remains focused on increasing the pressure on the Assad regime and on Assad himself to step down,” Rice said.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has said it is already giving the Syrian opposition logistical and communications help, but it has shied away from providing arms.

Rice reiterated that Washington was ready to consider other council measures, though Russia and China have made clear they would oppose U.N. sanctions on Damascus.

Russia, which has vetoed two council resolutions on Syria, remains the country’s main ally on the Security Council.

“Things are moving in a positive direction,” Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin said after Annan’s briefing.

China’s U.N. envoy Li Baodong told the Security Council that events in Syria have been “developing positively”, diplomats said.

Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari was optimistic, though he said foreign spoilers were trying to undermine Annan and the U.N. observer mission.

“There is a positive trend on the ground,” he told reporters. “However, we are still facing some Arab, regional and international powers who are deploying huge efforts in order to topple and undermine the mission of observers.”

He held up a CD that he said contained 26 confessions from Arabs who were caught in Syria and had come from Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere through Turkey and Lebanon “to perpetrate terrorist acts in Syria.” He added that another 15 foreign fighters had been killed by Syrian security forces.

But there is growing concern from countries around Syria which are seeing a growing influx of refugees.

“We support the Annan plan but if someone were to ask me what my hopes are, I would say I have lost hope,” Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country now has more than 23,000 Syrian refugees, said on a visit to Rome.

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