THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Special United Nations envoy Kofi Annan flew to the Syrian capital Sunday to demand an end to the violence and to present the internationally backed plan for a transitional government to replace the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Annan’s spokesman said.
His mission to Damascus provides the first major test of a week-old plan, backed by the United States, Russia and China, for a Syrian-led process to install a transitional government with full executive powers. Annan expects the visit to last one day.
The first demand Annan will make is to halt the fighting in the 16-month uprising, Ahmad Fawzi, Annan’s spokesman, told McClatchy Sunday. “We cannot proceed to any other steps until they agree to put their guns down,” he said. “It’s the single most important thing, but not the only thing.”
It wasn’t clear if Annan would press on this visit for the key step envisioned under the “Action Plan” that Annan drafted and won approval from all members of the UN Security Council and the Arab League in Geneva June 30. This is to demand that Assad name an interlocutor to meet with a counterpart named by the anti-government forces to determine the participants to a transitional government.
The U.N. plan allows for members of the Assad regime to play a role in that transition, provided they are acceptable to the opposition battling the government, but the United States and its allies have stressed that Assad should be excluded from a future role.
But he will also probe Assad’s long-term intentions. In an interview with the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet newspaper, Assad said last week his position “doesn’t mean anything to me” and that if the people didn’t want him, “you should never stay in office one day.”
But in another part of the same interview published a day later, he said his situation was completely unlike that of the late Shah of Iran, who was forced from power in 1979 by a popular revolution.
It wasn’t clear which message reflected Assad’s intentions.
“We’ll know more” after the discussions, Fawzi said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Friday said the regime, in its effort to suppress the uprising, has killed at least 16,000 people so far, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said as many as 100 civilians and anti-government figures are dying daily.
In an interview published this weekend in the French newspaper Le Monde, Annan voiced the first, indirect, criticism of Clinton’s handling of the Syrian crisis, in particular over her swipes at China and Russia.
Clinton slammed the two countries at a conference Friday in Paris attended by more than 100 countries and organizations, less than a week after Annan won the backing of both countries to halt the fighting and install a transitional government. Singling out those countries, especially Russia, “is irritating” to them, Annan said.
“Little is known about other countries sending arms and funds,” he said. “All these countries claim they want a peaceful solution, but they take individual and collective initiatives that undermine the very meaning of the resolutions of the Security Council.”
In the interview, Annan also decried the absence of Iran from the talks, which occurred at the insistence of the U.S. government. Iran has helped train, equip and support Assad’s security forces.
“Iran is an actor. It should be part of the solution,” Annan said. “It has influence, and we cannot ignore it.”
If Annan was trying to send a message for Clinton to turn down the rhetoric, it didn’t seem to get delivered. Clinton, in Tokyo, again Sunday referred to Russia and China without naming them specifically, saying “the future ... should be abundantly clear to those who support the Assad regime…The sand is running out of the hour glass."
By comparison, European Union and Turkish spokesmen used more diplomatic wording to describe their hopes for the Annan visit.
“We hope that his visit will encourage especially the government but also other parties to end the violence, and work towards the transition plan, and the transition government,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for Catherine Ashton, the EU’s top foreign policy official told McClatchy by e-mail.
A senior Turkish official said he expects Assad to express his acceptance of the Geneva accord – which he’s already done publicly – and promise to implement it immediately. But then he’ll add a “but as you know” phrase and give a list of all the things other parties should do first, foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal told McClatchy.
Nevertheless, Turkey “expects a positive outcome,” Unal said in an e-mail.