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30 Mar 2012 08:48
Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, on Thursday promised he would try to implement a UN-backed peace plan but is demanding that opposition groups pledge to end violence and other countries cease backing them.
In his first comments on the six-point plan being promoted by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, Assad said Syria would “spare no effort” to make the mission a success but warned that Annan must secure a commitment from armed groups to cease “terrorist acts” against the government.
Unnamed countries supporting and financing terrorism would also have to stop, he said in a message to the Brics summit (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) reported in Arabic by the official Sana news agency.
The Syrian opposition and western governments have reacted sceptically to the claim that Syria has accepted the Annan plan.
Assad’s comments were made public as fellow leaders convened in Baghdad for the first Arab League summit of the Arab spring—and the first in Iraq for 22 years. Heads of state were expected to back “a political solution via national dialogue” but not explicitly to urge the Syrian president to quit, as the opposition and western governments are insisting.
Assad himself was not invited as Syria was suspended from the 22-member pan-Arab body last year.
But the many other leaders who stayed away included the king of Saudi Arabia and the emir of Qatar, the leading hawks on the Syrian crisis—who have called for the arming of anti-Assad rebels.
Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, warned that arming either side in Syria would lead to a proxy war.
Two new leaders—Tunisia’s president, Moncef Marzouki, and Libya’s Mustafa Abdel Jalil—represented the enormous changes brought about by the uprisings of the last year across the region.
Heavy security measures were in place after a wave of bombings across Iraq last week and explosions were reported near the Iranian embassy and on the edge of the fortified “green zone” where the three-day summit was being held.
According to a leaked draft of the final statement on Syria, the summiteers were planning to “denounce the violence, murder and bloodshed, and ...
Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, explained that the summit would not demand that Assad go, in line with the league’s own stalled initiative. “It is up to the people of Syria to decide, to choose, to elect their leaders,” he said. “It’s not up to the League or to anybody else,” the Agence France-Presse agency reported.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, was on hand to back the efforts of Annan on behalf of the UN and the Arab League, to end the violence in Syria, which is now estimated to have claimed more than 9 000 lives in the last 13 months. Meanwhile, clashes and killings were reported from across the country.
“The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action,” Ban said.
Representatives of the Syrian opposition were not invited.
Annan’s plan calls for a “Syrian-led political process” as well as a UN-supervised ceasefire, humanitarian and media access, release of prisoners and legal protests. Russia and China say they support the initiative but are wary of anything that smacks of regime change.
The Baghdad summit was billed as a historic occasion for Iraq as well—the first such high-level conference it had hosted since shortly before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The emir of Kuwait was making his first visit to Iraq since then. But other Gulf states sent only foreign ministers or diplomats.
Iraq has been mending its fences with Kuwait and Egypt in recent months but there are still strong reservations across the Arab world about Mailki’s Shia-dominated government and its relations with neighbouring Iran, the regional bogeyman for the Gulf states.
Expectations of any kind of effective action on Syria were low, given the state of Arab divisions. Western governments are instead talking up next Monday’s larger “Friends of Syria” group meeting in Istanbul, which will endorse Annan’s plan.
The hope is that the Syrian opposition will also present a more united stance.
William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, announced on Thursday that the UK had agreed to provide £500 000 in support to the opposition. “It includes agreement in principle for practical non-lethal support to them inside Syria,” Hague said. “It will help hard-pressed opposition groups and brave civil society organisations inside and outside the country to document the regime’s violations and gain the skills and resources they need to help build a democratic future for Syria”.—
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