DAMASCUS (Reuters) - U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan said he and President Bashar al-Assad agreed on Monday on an approach to Syria’s conflict that he would now take to the opposition, and flew on to Iran for talks with the main regional ally of Damascus.
The former U.N. secretary general is trying to rescue his six-point peace plan, which was worked out with the Syrian government and rebels in April but faltered because the ceasefire it was supposed to begin with never took hold.
Major powers agreed at a meeting with Annan on June 30 that a transitional government should be set up in Syria, but remain at odds over what part Assad might play in the process.
“I just had a positive and constructive discussion with President Assad,” Annan said before leaving for Tehran.
“We agreed an approach which I will share with the opposition,” he told reporters in Damascus. He gave no details, but again stressed the importance of halting violence that has killed more than 15,000 people in 16 months, by an opposition count.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said in a Twitter message: “In both meetings we reassured Annan of Syria’s commitment to implement the 6-point plan and hoped (the) other side is mutually committed.”
In a TV interview on Sunday, Assad said he remained committed to Annan’s plan and accused the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey of supplying arms and logistical support to insurgents fighting to end 42 years of Assad family domination of the pivotal Arab state.
“We know that (Annan) is coming up against countless obstacles but his plan should not be allowed to fail, it is a very good plan,” he told Germany’s ARD network.
“The main obstacle (is) that many countries don’t want (it) to succeed. So they offer political support and they still send armaments and send money to terrorists in Syria,” Assad said, according to a transcript of the interview, held in English.
The White House said on Monday it supported Annan’s mission but time was running short. “President Assad’s behaviour has been heinous and we judge him by his actions, not his words,” spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
The U.S. State Department said it had seen no sign of Damascus being ready to stop violence and was sceptical about Annan’s chances of making progress in Iran.
“To the extent that he (Annan) can stress to the Iranians the importance of cooperating with the plan that’s a good thing, but we haven’t seen signs of that either yet,” spokesman Patrick Ventrell told a news briefing.
Syria, led by members of the Alawite sect related to Shi’ite Islam, has alleged that the Sunni Muslim-led Gulf monarchies are backing unrest among its Sunni majority to check Shi’ite influence in the region, notably that of Shi’ite Iran.
Russia, which has thus far defended Assad from the threat of U.N. sanctions, said it would not deliver Yak-130 fighter planes or other new arms to Syria while the situation there remained unresolved.
“While the situation in Syria is unstable, there will be no new deliveries of arms there,” Vyacheslav Dzirkaln, deputy director of the Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation, told journalists at the Farnborough Airshow in Britain, according to the Interfax agency.
The refusal to send more arms to Syria - such exports date back to the Soviet era - may be the most pointed move yet by Moscow to distance itself from Assad as rebels gain some ground and the death toll climbs.
Annan’s plan calls for an end to fighting by government security forces and rebels, withdrawal of the government’s heavy weapons from towns, return of the army to barracks, humanitarian access and talks between the government and opposition aimed at a “political transition”.
Opponents of Assad invited to Moscow for talks insisted that the political dialogue Annan is trying to initiate must start with a change at the top - a position that Russia rejects, and Annan’s plan does not specify.
“The transition period must begin with Assad’s departure,” said Samir Aita, representative of the opposition Democratic Syria Foundation. “A national government must be created, and in order to do that, an all-Syrian national conference, where all representatives of the Syrian population would express their opinions, needs to take place.”
The main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), is also expected to take part in the talks. A senior member of the group said a delegation of 10 members led by the group’s head, Abdelbasset Sida, will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday.
“The delegation will ask the Russians not to be an obstacle in the way of any movement aimed at toppling Bashar (al-Assad),” said Mohamed Sermini.
Anti-Assad activists in Syria reported army shelling and clashes with rebels on Monday in Deir al-Zor, Deraa, Homs, Aleppo and a neighbourhood of Damascus. Residents reported the sound of gunfire in the capital. An activist website said more than 100 Syrians were killed on Sunday, most of them civilians.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday opposition forces were growing more effective, and the sooner the violence ended, the better the chances of sparing Syria’s government a “catastrophic assault” by rebel fighters were.
While Assad has faced sanctions and international condemnation over his crackdown on dissent, major Western and Arab powers have shied away from direct military action.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a speech in the Netherlands: “We will continue to try to persuade Russia and China, but if the Kofi Annan plan fails, no option to protect lives will be off the table.”
Assad told his German interviewer he did not fear that he might share the fate of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed after capture, or Hosni Mubarak, the toppled Egyptian president sentenced to life imprisonment.
Assad said most of the victims of the uprising were supporters of the government.
“From the list that we have, from the names that we have, the highest percentage are people who are killed by gangs, different kinds of gangs ... If you talk about the supporters of the government - the victims from the security and the army - are more than the civilians,” he said.
Activists, who keep lists of names and dates of death, and Western governments say more than 15,000 people have been killed by forces loyal to the government, the great majority of them people who opposed the government and their innocent families.
Syria says more than 2,600 members of the security forces have been killed.
Additional reporting by; Mariam Karouny in Beirut,Nastassia Astrasheuskaya in Moscow,Thomas Escritt in The Hague; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Tim Pearce