Syrian forces on the offensive; Annan in Moscow

AFP , Sunday 25 Mar 2012

Russia warned that Kofi Annan represented the last chance for avoiding a civil war in Syria, while the regime forces continue shelling by tanks and rockets the city of Daraa and Homs, the center hub of the protest movements

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands with UN and Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan during their meeting in Moscow, Sunday, (Photo: AP).

Russia offered "full support" for international efforts to end a year of fighting in Syria on Sunday but gave no details of how that would play out on the ground as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad attacked Homs and other rebel strongholds.

Moscow reiterated its stance that foreign support for the Syrian opposition was the main obstacle to peace, even as U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan discussed how to get non-lethal aid to the opposition.

Western and Arab states have urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside to end violence which the U.N. says has cost 8,000 lives. Russia, a close ally of Assad, said if he is to end his assault, the rebels must also cease fire.

With the Syrian army on the offensive around the country and the opposition fearing Assad would use any talks to strengthen his position and crack down harder, the prospect of a negotiated peace seemed more remote than ever.

A U.S.-based human rights group accused Assad's forces ofon Sunday of using human shields in their efforts to crush the rebellion, which began more than a year ago.

"Syrian government forces have endangered local residents by forcing them to march in front of the army during recent arrest operations, troop movements, and attacks on towns and villages in northern Syria," it said, quoting residents from Syria's northwestern province of Idlib

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who will join Obama for a nuclear security summit in South Korea on Monday, told U.N.-Arab League Syria envoy Kofi Annan in Moscow he appreciated his efforts to end the violence.

"This may be the last chance for Syria to avoid a long-lasting and bloody civil war. Therefore we will offer you our full support at any level and in various ways in those areas, of course, in which Russia is capable of providing support."

It was not clear whether Moscow would use its influence with Assad to press him to end his assault on his opponents and allow access to humanitarian aid.

Annan has drawn up a six-point peace plan, including demands for a ceasefire, the immediate withdrawal of heavy armour from residential areas and access for humanitarian assistance.

Apparently to ensure Russian support, Annan's statement after the talks included no firm deadlines, potentially allowing Assad to play for time, and no direct call for Assad to cede power, which Russia would also have opposed.

"Syria has an opportunity today to work with me and this mediation process to put an end to the conflict, to the fighting, allow access to those in need of humanitarian assistance as well as embark on a political process that will lead to a peaceful settlement," Annan's statement said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Annan's mission must be given more time before the Security Council considers further action.

"There are no deadlines, we need to see how the situation develops," the Interfax news agency quoted Gatilov as saying.

Moscow has accused the West of being too one-sided, arguing that outside support for rebels, which it says is both political and military in some cases, is fuelling the fighting in Syria, which hosts a Russian naval base.

Assad, it argues, is ready for talks

"Kofi Annan's plan has a chance to succeed if both the authorities and the opposition in Syria cooperate. The authorities, it seems, are ready to do so," Gatilov said on Twitter on Sunday.

Russia and China have vetoed two U.N. resolutions critical of Damascus, but did support a Security Council statement this week endorsing Annan's mission. The former U.N. chief is due to fly to China after his Russia talks.

In the Korean capital Seoul, Obama and Erdogan discussed providing medical supplies and communications support to the Syrian opposition but there was no talk of providing lethal aid for rebel forces.

"We worked on a common agenda in terms of how we can support both humanitarian efforts ... (and) the efforts of Kofi Annan to bring about much needed change (in Syria)," Obama said after his meeting with Erdogan, a sharp critic of Assad.

New York-based Human Rights Watch published videos, obtained from opposition activists, in which people in civilian clothes walk in front of several armed soldiers and infantry fighting vehicles. Activists say the army had compelled the men to walk in front to protect the soldiers.

The statement said that residents reported government forces placing children on tanks and inside security buses.

"The Syrian army's use of human shields is yet another reason why the UN Security Council should refer Syria to the International Criminal Court," said Ole Solvang, a HRW emergencies researcher.

It was impossible to verify reports independently because Syrian authorities have prevented foreign journalists and human rights workers from entering affected areas.


Syria says rebels have killed about 3,000 members of the security forces and blames the violence on "terrorist" gangs. The United Nations says the conflict has taken 8,000 lives.

Syrian troops have repeatedly targeted Homs, Syria's third largest city, and said last month they had regained control of Baba Amr, a neighbourhood held by rebels for several months.

However, a surge in violence in other neighbourhoods this week suggested the army was struggling to keep control.

Waleed al-Faris, an opposition activist from Homs, told Reuters that Sunday's shelling, using tank and mortar fire, was the worst he had seen.

"There are nine killed and hundreds wounded," he said.

In the southern province of Deraa, birthplace of the revolt, government forces and rebels clashed on Sunday.

"Thousands of soldiers and over a hundred military vehicles are attempting to enter the area of Lahat in Deraa province today, but they are clashing with rebels," said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, adding that at least five soldiers and three rebels had been killed.

In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, Syrian troops conducted house-to-house raids in search of dissidents, SOHR said.

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