ISTANBUL — Syrian President Bashar Assad, attempting to seize the initiative after taking a clobbering in international forums over the conflict in his country, has named a member of his Cabinet as a negotiator in U.N.-sponsored talks to set up a transitional government to succeed his dictatorship.
The proposal for Ali Haidar, his minister of reconciliation, to take up the position came as an apparent surprise to Kofi Annan, the U.N. special envoy, who met Assad on Monday, according to a leaked account of the meeting published this week by a Beirut daily newspaper. Annan hadn’t asked Assad to name a mediator, however, and the move also could have been an effort to draw a contrast with the chaotic opposition, which is made up of disparate groups that lack a central leadership.
Annan was pleading for a halt in violence, which only escalated Thursday with reported shelling in the capital, Damascus, for the first time since the uprising began 16 months ago, and gruesome TV footage accompanying opposition reports that Syrian forces had massacred more than 100 people in a village in the hard-hit Hama province. Arabic-language news reports, using activist-provided footage and witness accounts, said dozens of residents in the village of Tremseh were shelled, then stormed by pro-Assad militiamen who executed the survivors.
State media, meanwhile, reported that two soldiers were killed by “terrorists,” the regime’s term for the armed rebels.
The regime faced another embarrassing defection with the flight of Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, who the White House confirmed Thursday had left the government and joined the opposition. Fares’ defection comes less than a week after Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant, broke with the regime and fled Syria. Previous military defections had been by lower-ranking officers.
“We are seeing daily now more and more indications that Assad is losing his grip, that those around him, both in his inner circle and more broadly in the military and governmental leadership, are beginning to assess Assad’s chances of remaining in power,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
Despite the higher-level defections and ever louder chorus of international condemnation, Assad appears to think that he’s still stable enough to handpick a successor, judging from the purported transcript of his meeting with Annan. The Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar printed the account in its Thursday editions.
Assad told Annan that his choice of steward, Haidar, had trained with him as an ophthalmologist and wasn’t a member of his inner circle, but also wasn’t a part of the opposition. He’d lost a son to rebel forces.
The United States, Russia, China, the European Union and the Arab League agreed to the plan June 30 in talks with Syria not in attendance, but Annan hadn’t expected to push for the naming of envoys until after violence had abated, according to his spokesman.
Annan’s reaction to Assad’s proposal was, “Let me think about it,” spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told McClatchy. He said Annan would vet Haidar and then ask top representatives of the Syrian opposition for their agreement.
“He has to be acceptable to the opposition,” Fawzi said.
Menhal Barish, a senior official with the Syrian National Council, a leading opposition body, said Thursday that Haidar was “not so bad a man” and that “his hands aren’t dirty with blood.” But he rejected giving Haidar a key role in the transition.
“The opposition will not accept Ali to drive the country into the next phase,” he said in a phone interview from Antakya, Turkey, near the Syrian border.
U.S. officials likewise dismissed Assad’s pick.
“It’s not only an interlocutor – we need Assad to step aside and allow the elements of the regime that don’t have blood on their hands to work with the opposition together to come up with a follow-on transition government that has full executive authority,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.
Assad has thrown his full army and security forces into suppressing an anti-government rebellion that began 16 months ago during the Arab Spring, killing as many as 16,000 civilians, according to the estimates of Western governments. In the process, he’s earned condemnations from most governments, among them Persian Gulf Arab countries that have begun sending money fand possibly weapons to the rebels.
The anti-government forces have seized a substantial swath of territory and set up working local governments with judicial, police and other municipal services. They also appear to be gaining ground in the country, possibly controlling a quarter or more of Syria’s territory.
Fawzi said there were many inaccuracies in the Akhbar article and that Annan had complained to the Syrian government, which denied any responsibility.
At one point, the article quoted Annan as criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for warning that the armed resistance was on the offensive, but Fawzi described that report as “a fabrication.”
Annan already has voiced indirect criticism of Clinton’s handling of the Syria crisis, in particular her slamming of Syria’s two leading international allies, Russia and China, in a speech last Friday before a group of 100 nations and organizations that call themselves the “Friends of the People of Syria.” In an interview with the French daily Le Monde last week, Annan said that singling out the two countries and urging the nations of the world to put pressure on them was “irritating” the Russian government.
He’s also criticized the fact that Iran, a key backer of Assad, has been kept from attending the international talks, another indirect swipe at the United States. “Iran is an actor. It should be part of the solution,” he said. “It has influence, and we cannot ignore it.”
Annan visited Tehran on Tuesday and briefed Iranian leaders on the new U.N. plan. Standing alongside Ali Akhbar Salehi, the Iranian foreign minister, he said Salehi “has made it clear that if we do not make a real effort to resolve this issue peacefully, and it were to get out of hand and spread to the region, (it would) lead to consequences that none of us can imagine.”
Annan was named joint special envoy for the United Nations and the Arab League in February, and he produced a six-point peace plan in April that focused on achieving a cease-fire but now is generally viewed as a failure. Two weeks ago, Annan convinced Russia, China and the U.S. to sign on to a far more ambitious plan, which foresees a new government that includes members of Assad’s regime as well as of the opposition, with each given a veto over the other’s nominations.