BEIRUT: U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan waded into big power politics Tuesday, insisting regional heavyweight Iran should be involved in efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Syria crisis despite the West’s firm rejection of a role for Tehran.
The United States and its NATO and Gulf Arab allies are opposed to involving the Islamic Republic, which strongly backs Syrian President Bashar Assad and is regarded as their main adversary in the Middle East.
“Iran has a role to play. And my presence here explains that I believe in that,” Annan said after talks in Tehran with Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
“I have received encouragement and cooperation with the minister and the [Iranian] government,” Annan said.
The former U.N. secretary-general said Iran had made clear that if the crisis got “out of hand and spread to the region, it could lead to consequences that none of us can imagine.”
Russia, which along with China opposes any external move to tip the balance against Assad, has said Iran should be involved. But State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. doubts Iran will be able to play a constructive role.
“If the Iranian regime wants to stop giving direct material support to the Syrian killing machine ... we would welcome that. We’re not at that point yet,” he said Monday.
After his talks in Tehran, Annan flew to Baghdad where, he said, he had “very good discussions” with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Syria and later told reporters he would brief the U.N. Security Council Wednesday.
“And I’m sure the council will take appropriate action, including the future of UNSMIS, the monitors on the ground, as their mandate comes up on the 21st of July,” Annan said of unarmed U.N. observers deployed in Syria.
Annan is striving to revive his moribund plan for ending Syria’s 16-month-old uprising after his first attempt to call a truce on April 12 failed.
Following talks in Damascus Monday, Annan said Assad had suggested ending Syria’s conflict on a step-by-step basis, starting with districts that have suffered the worst violence.
He said Assad proposed “building an approach from the ground up in some of the districts where we have extreme violence to try and contain the violence in those districts and, step by step, build up and end the violence across the country,” adding he needed to discuss the proposal with the Syrian opposition.
Opposition leaders say there can be no peaceful transition unless Assad relinquishes power first. Assad has ruled out leaving office in such a way.
Annan originally wanted the Islamic Republic to be part of the major power “action group” meeting in Geneva June 30, but it was vetoed.
It was agreed at the Geneva meeting that a transitional government should be set up in Syria, but the major powers remain at odds over what part Assad might play in the process.Russia says no transition plan can presuppose that Assad will step down. The West and allied Gulf Arab states say he must go, and the Syrian opposition say that is their basic condition.
Instead, Russia proposed what sounded like an alternative to the Western-backed, anti-Assad “Friends of Syria” forum, with an offer to visiting Syrian opposition groups to host regular meetings of Annan’s own “Action Group” of states, which is more balanced between pro- and anti-Assad influences.
The Syrian National Council – the main opposition group in exile – was due to hold talks Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russia, a major arms supplier to Damascus, meanwhile dispatched a destroyer-class warship to Syria Tuesday, a source in the Russian Navy told Reuters, and another military source was quoted as saying four more Russian ships were en route.
But the source quoted by Interfax news agency said the ships’ mission had nothing to do with the conflict, saying instead the vessels were carrying marines on a training mission, as well as food, water and fuel for Russia’s naval maintenance and repair base in Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartous.
A Russian official was reported Monday as saying that Moscow was suspending arms deliveries while the conflict in the country continued. In the United States Tuesday, the White House said it is aware of a Russian naval flotilla headed for a Syrian port but did not yet view it as cause for concern.
Meanwhile, reports of violence continued from the ground as the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 17,129 people have been killed since the beginning of the revolt. It said 11,897 civilians or armed insurgents had been killed by Assad’s forces, but that it could not determine how many fell into each category. It also estimated that 884 defectors had been killed. The Observatory further put the death toll among Syrian security forces loyal to Assad at 4,348.
The Syrian government has not given a death toll for security forces for several months but Assad said last week that most of the victims of the uprising were government supporters.
The Observatory said several towns were shelled Tuesday in the northerly Aleppo and Idlib provinces, which border Turkey. In Lattakia province, further west but also close to the Turkish border, Syrian forces fired on Jabal al-Akrad in an attempt to regain control from rebels infiltrating from Turkey.
In Deir Ezzour, on the eastern road to Iraq, a volunteer medic was killed and at least four soldiers died in fighting.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid worker, Khaled Khaffaji, died Tuesday a day after he was shot in a clearly marked ambulance in the town of Deir Ezzour, the organization said. He was the fifth member of the group’s staff to be killed in the conflict.
Clashes were also reported overnight in Deraa, along the border with Jordan, and gunfire and explosions rocked the cities of Homs and Hama and the central town of Rastan.
And in other ground developments, Syrian state TV reported Syrian authorities Tuesday freed 275 prisoners who were “involved” in the popular uprising against Assad.
“The authorities have freed 275 prisoners involved in recent incidents, but none of them have blood on their hands,” the state broadcaster said.
More than 4,000 people have been set free in seven rounds since the start of the uprising in March last year, including 1,000 in May alone, according to official Syrian media.
Releasing detainees is a requisite of the six-point peace plan originally brokered by Annan. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says tens of thousands of people have been detained since.