President Bashar al-Assad has told Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy, that no political solution is possible in Syria while “terrorist” groups are destabilising the country.
“Syria is ready to make a success of any honest effort to find a solution for the events it is witnessing,” state news agency SANA quoted Assad as telling his guest in Damascus on Saturday.
“No political dialogue or political activity can succeed while there are armed terrorist groups operating and spreading chaos and instability,” the Syrian leader said after about two hours of talks with the former UN secretary-general.
There was no immediate comment from Annan after the meeting, aimed at halting bloodshed that has cost thousands of lives since a popular uprising erupted a year ago.
Al Jazeera’s Sue Turton, reporting from Beirut, said observers are eagerly awaiting Annan’s assessment of the meeting.
“As of now, we are only hearing from one side, the Syrian state media. Their descriptions were positive but don’t sound terribly optimistic. It doesn’t sound, from the Syrian side fo things, that very much progress has been made,” Turton said.
While they discussed the crisis, Syrian troops were assaulting the northwestern city of Idlib, an opposition bastion.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met Annan in Cairo earlier in the day, told the Arab League his country was “not protecting any regime”, but did not believe the Syrian crisis could be blamed on one side alone.
He called for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid access, but Qatar and Saudi Arabia sharply criticised Moscow’s stance.
Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh, reporting from Cairo, said today’s develpoments have increased specualtion about the outcome of a UN Security Council meeting in New York on Monday.
“What is important for Russia, and Sergei Lavrov made it very clear today, is for both sides to withdraw their fighters from the cities and for the onus on both sides. Then, move forward to a ceasefire and access to humanitarian aid,” Rageh said.
“This raises interesting questions. Who is going to monitor the ceasefire? But what is important is that [Russia and other nations] are at the dialogue table. Both sides are offereing compromise here and this will all be brought to the [UN] Security Council,” she added.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, who has led calls for Assad to be isolated, and for the Syrian oppositon to be armed, said a ceasefire was not enough.
Syrian leaders must be held to account and political prisoners freed, he declared.
“We must send a message to the Syrian regime that the world’s patience and our patience has run out, as has the time for silence about its practices,” Qatar’s prime minister said.
Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said shortcomings in the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions on Syria, had allowed the killing to go on.
Their position, he said, “gave the Syrian regime a licence to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people”.
International rifts have paralysed action on Syria, with Russia and China opposing Western and Arab calls for Assad, who inherited power from his father nearly 12 years ago, to quit.
Lavrov told Arab ministers in Cairo that a new UN Security Council resolution had a chance of being approved if it was not driven by a desire to let the armed opposition take control of Syria’s streets.
The US has drafted a fresh resolution, but the State Department said on Friday it was not optimistic that its text would be accepted by the Security Council.
France says it will oppose any measure that holds the Syrian government and its foes equally responsible for the bloodshed.
Despite their differences, Lavrov and Arab ministers said they had agreed on the need for an end to violence in Syria.
They also called for unbiased monitoring of events there, opposition to foreign intervention, delivery of humanitarian aid and support for Annan’s peace efforts.
Annan also planned to meet Syrian dissidents before leaving Damascus on Sunday.
He has called for a political solution, but the opposition says the time for dialogue is long gone.
“We support any initiative that aims to stop the killings, but we reject it if it is going to give Bashar more time to break the revolution and keep him in power,” Melham al-Droubi, a Saudi-based member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and of the exiled Syrian National Council, told the Reuters news agency by telephone.
Russia, one of Syria’s few foreign friends and its main arms supplier, could play a pivotal role in any negotiated solution.
Chinese and Russian reluctance to approve any UN resolution on Syria stems partly from their fear that it could
be used to justify a Libya-style military intervention, although Western powers deny any intention to go to war again in Syria.
Qatar’s prime minister chided Russia for accepting the Syrian government’s portrayal of insurgents as armed gangs.
“There are no armed gangs, the systematic killing came from the Syrian government side for many months,” he told the Arab League meeting.
“After that the people were forced to defend themselves so the regime labeled them armed gangs.” .
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Lavrov in New York on Monday when the Security Council holds a special meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be in focus.