BEIRUT/DAMASCUS: Kofi Annan arrived in Damascus Sunday evening for talks with President Bashar Assad, his spokesman said, a day after the international peace envoy admitted that his peace plan had so far failed to end 16 months of bloodshed.
Syria’s navy fired live missiles from ships and helicopters over the weekend in an exercise aiming at demonstrating its ability to “defend Syria’s shores against any possible aggression,” state media said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Syrian opposition forces were growing more effective and the sooner the violence ended, the better were the chances of sparing Syria’s government from a “catastrophic assault” by rebel fighters.
Assad said U.S. political support for “terrorists” was hindering Annan’s peace plan and accused several Middle Eastern countries of supplying the rebels with arms and other support.
Syrian television aired video of a variety of missiles being fired from launchers on land and from ships, with Defense Minister Dawoud Abdallah Rajha in attendance.
“Naval Forces conducted an operational live fire exercise Saturday, using missiles launched from the sea and coast, helicopters and missile boats, simulating a scenario of repelling a sudden attack from the sea,” Syrian news agency SANA said, adding that maneuvers would continue.
Opposition figures have called for a no-fly zone and NATO strikes against Syrian forces, similar to those carried out in Libya last year which enabled rebel ground forces to end the rule of Moammar Gadhafi.
But while Assad has faced sanctions and international condemnation over his crackdown on dissent which has left thousands dead, major Western and Arab powers have shied away from direct military action.
Turkey has reinforced its border and scrambled fighter aircraft several times since Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet on June 22 over what Damascus said were Syrian territorial waters in the Mediterranean. Ankara said the incident occurred in international air space.
“The sooner there can be an end to the violence and a beginning of a political transition process, not only will fewer people die, but there is a chance to save the Syrian state from a catastrophic assault that would be very dangerous not only to Syria but to the region,” Clinton told a news conference.
She appeared to be referring to the possibility of Syrian rebels launching such an assault on state institutions rather than to any outside intervention.
“There is no doubt that the opposition is getting more effective in their defense of themselves and in going on the offence against the Syrian military and the Syrian government’s militias. So, the future ... should be abundantly clear to those who support the Assad regime,” Clinton added.
“The sand is running out of the hour glass.”
In an interview broadcast on German television later Sunday, Assad said countries providing material and political support to the rebels were hindering Annan’s peace plan.
“We know that [Annan] is coming up against countless obstacles but his plan should not be allowed to fail – it is a very good plan,” Assad told German television channel Das Erste.
Assad accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of providing weapons to the rebels and Turkey of giving logistical help to smuggle in supplies.
“The biggest obstacle is that many countries do not even want this plan to succeed so they offer political support and continue to provide the terrorists in Syria with arms and money,” Assad said, according to a transcript of the interview conducted on July 5.
More than 17,000 people have now died since the uprising began in March last year, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
At least 85 people, including 42 civilians, were killed in violence across Syria Sunday, said the Observatory, which gathers its information from a network of activists and witnesses.
Activists reported heavy shelling in residential areas of Deir al-Zour city and in Deraa province, the birthplace of the revolt near the Jordanian border.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory, said residents of al-Sharifa in the wider Deir al-Zour province were reporting that rebels had for the first time taken over a tank and were using it to attack army positions.
The rebels have gained confidence in recent weeks, staging bolder attacks, holding pockets of territory across the country and clashing with troops only a few miles from the presidential palace in Damascus.
Annan arrived with deputy Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad at the Dama Rose hotel in the capital, where U.N. observers have been staying since suspending their patrols because of a steep increase in the level of violence.
U.N. and government sources said Annan and Assad would not meet Sunday.
“Clearly, we have not succeeded. And maybe there is no guarantee that we will succeed,” Annan told French daily le Monde.
He said that Western criticism of Russia was diverting attention from the role of other countries in backing Assad and arming his soldiers, notably Iran. Assad has been Shiite Iran’s main ally in the Arab world.
“Russia has influence, but I don’t think that events will be determined by Russia alone. What strikes me is that there is so much talk about Russia and much less about Iran, and little is said about other countries that are sending money and weapons,” Annan said.
Sunni Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar have called for the arming and funding of the rebel forces.
“All these countries say they want a peaceful solution, but they undertake individual and collective actions that undermine the very meaning of [U.N.] Security Council resolutions,” he added.
Meanwhile, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said Sunday in Jordan that any attack on Syria would be “stupid” and “catastrophic.”
“Military action in Syria is unlikely and if this happens it would be stupid. Syria can defend itself without Iran’s help. Any non-political solution would bring catastrophe to the entire region,” he said.