U.N.'s Kofi Annan meets with Syria's Bashar Assad as rebels say cease-fire plan has yielded nothing

McClatchy NewspapersMay 29, 2012 

— United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan met Tuesday with Syrian President Bashar Asssad to express dismay over the killing last week of 108 people in the Syrian town of Houla as evidence mounts that Syria’s warring factions have hardened their positions a month and a half after a U.N.-backed cease-fire went into effect.

The United States and seven other Western nations expelled Syrian diplomats over the massacre, which took the lives of 84 women and children, according to the U.N. Most of them appeared to have been killed with firearms and knives, U.N. investigators said, and the U.N. human rights office blamed the killings on Syrian government troops and militiamen.

Neither the Syrian government nor the armed opposition at any point has honored the cease-fire since it went into effect April 12, and the killings at Houla, one of the deadliest incidents in more than a year of violence, underscored how little has come of the plan, which in addition to a cease-fire calls for negotiations between the Assad government and the opposition.

“The plan started 45 days ago, but nothing has been accomplished,” said Abu Yousif, a member of the rebel military council for Jisr al Shughour, a city near Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey.

Abu Yousif, who used a nom de guerre that in Arabic means “father of Yousif,” spoke near one of the seven refugee camps just inside the Turkish border where more than 24,000 Syrians have fled the fighting since last year. The camps also have become a haven for fighters, who slip across the border to carry out attacks and then return to Turkey.

The men around Abu Yousif, some of whom were fighters under his command, said the Syrian military continued to lay anti-personnel mines along the border, which had led to the deaths of two fighters and five civilians in the last two weeks.

Annan’s “six-point plan” calls for a cessation of violence by all sides – including the withdrawal of government heavy weaponry from population centers – the release of political prisoners, provision of humanitarian aid in affected areas, permission for demonstrations and the granting of visas to international journalists. Point 6 calls for negotiations between the government and the opposition.

“They are jumping to Point 6,” Abu Yousif said. “They should accomplish the first five points before moving to No. 6. We have no hopes for the initiative.”

Anti-government activists initially said they hoped the plan might bear fruit, but they became disillusioned. Most now say the U.N. has simply allowed the government to buy time. Since the beginning of the monitoring mission, U.N. observers themselves have been caught in the middle of the violence multiple times, apparently narrowly escaping injury at times when their government escorts have been attacked. The incident in Houla was the first time the U.N. had made a statement laying blame on one side or the other for an incident.

Activists said the government had largely failed to remove heavy weaponry and troops from urban areas, fearing that the rebels would retake territory the government had seized during operations earlier this year. The rebels said the government had failed to release prisoners as well, a point that Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said the envoy had brought up Tuesday with Assad.

“There is no trust between us and the government,” Abu Yousif said. “People are still in prison. Nothing has changed. We are waiting for an announcement from the U.N. Security Council that Annan’s plan has failed.”

The rebel factions, who have a nominal leadership in Turkey that in practice has little control over events in Syria, have said they won’t accept anything less than Assad’s removal. It remains unclear who might negotiate with the government on their behalf, even if that point were to be reached.

“Our group rejects negotiations with the government,” Abu Yousif said. He said there were 14 groups of rebel fighters under his council’s command around Jisr al Shughour.

The expulsion of Syrian envoys from eight countries Tuesday also appeared to reduce the prospect of international dialogue with the Syrian government, which blamed the rebels for the deaths in Houla.

“In response to the May 25 massacre in the village of Houla, today the United States informed the Syrian Charge d’Affaires Zuheir Jabbour of his expulsion from the United States. He has 72 hours to leave the country. We took this action in coordination with partner countries including Australia, Canada, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

But White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration wasn’t yet ready to provide military aid to the opposition, and he rejected a call from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney that the United States take tougher measures against Assad.

"We do not believe that further militarization of the situation in Syria at this point is the right course of action. We believe that it would lead to greater chaos, greater carnage," Carney said.

As for the opposition, Carney added, “Obviously, not all of them represent and serve the democratic interests of the vast majority of the Syrian people," an apparent reference to recent suicide bombings of government buildings that bear the hallmarks of al Qaida attacks.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to vote in mid-July on whether to extend the monitoring mission. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has kept the most detailed record of casualties, has said that more 12,000 people have died in the violence since last year, the majority of them civilians.

Lesley Clark contributed to this story from Washington.

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @davidjenders

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