BEIRUT: U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said Thursday he wanted Iran to be involved in any “solution” to the Syria conflict, a suggestion the United States immediately balked at.
Annan was speaking amid more signs that diplomatic efforts to restore peace were floundering; U.N. observers came under fire as they tried to reach the site of the latest reported mass killing in Syria where activists accused government forces of killing nearly 80 people, including women and children who were shot, hacked to death and burned in their homes.
“Iran, as an important country in the region, I hope will be part of the solution,” Annan said as he discussed the countries that could take part in a new international Contact Group on Syria.
But U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice responded that “Iran is part of the problem in Syria at the present.”
“There is no question that it is actively engaged in supporting the government in perpetrating the violence on the ground,” Rice told reporters. “We think Iran has not demonstrated, to date, a readiness to contribute constructively to a peaceful political solution.”
Annan said discussions are at an “early stage” on bringing key world and regional powers into a contact group on the worsening Syria crisis.
Annan’s comments followed an hours-long closed door session of the U.N. Security Council during which the international envoy briefed the Council on the progress of his six-point peace plan to end the violence in Syria. So far the plan, agreed to by Syria, has yet to be implemented.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warned of a growing threat of full-scale civil war erupting in Syria, where more than a year of violence between government forces and opposition fighters shows no signs of abating.
“The Syrian people are bleeding,” Ban told reporters. “They are angry. They want peace and dignity. Above all, they all want action.”
“The danger of a civil war is imminent and real,” he said, adding that “terrorists are exploiting the chaos.”
However, the Syrian authorities blamed the violence on terrorists who are trying to provoke foreign military intervention to topple the president.
The reports came just weeks after more than 100 people, many of them women and children, were killed in one day in a cluster of villages known as Houla in central Homs province. U.N. investigators blamed pro-government gunmen for at least some of the killings, but the Syrian regime denied responsibility and blamed rebels for the deaths.
The Houla massacre brought international outrage and a coordinated expulsion of Syrian diplomats from world capitals.
Ban said shots had been fired at the U.N. convoy which had tried to get into the village of Qubeir to investigate the slaughter.
He said that according to preliminary evidence, the Syrian army had surrounded the village and militia had entered Qubeir and killed civilians with “barbarity,” according to diplomats at the meeting.
U.N. monitors had been prevented from going into Qubeir but would make a new attempt to enter the village Friday, U.N. spokesmen said.
Annan said the time had come to step up the pressure to keep the violence from spiraling out of control. He urged the Council to make clear that there would be “consequences” – usually a code words for sanctions – if his six-point peace plan was not fully implemented.
“Clearly, the time has come to determine what more can be done to secure implementation of the plan,” Annan said. “We must also chart a clearer course for a peaceful transition, if we are to help the government and opposition, as well as Syrian society, to help resolve the crisis.”
The U.S. and its European allies have tried unsuccessfully for months to threaten sanctions against Syria as the death toll has risen. But Russia and China, Syria’s main allies, vetoed two Security Council resolutions that threatened possible sanctions, and indicated their continuing opposition in a joint statement after a summit in Beijing Wednesday. The statement also opposed any outside military interference or forceful imposition of “regime change” in Syria.
Thursday marked the first time Annan said that Syria was not implementing his plan. He urged the Council and the rest of the international community to unite and act immediately to intensify pressure, especially on President Bashar Assad’s government.
Otherwise, he warned that Syria would likely face a future of “brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence, and even all-out civil war” in which “all Syrians will lose.”
Annan said the international community had united behind his plan “but it must now take that unity to a new level” and “act as one.”
After months of acrimonious debate and finger-pointing, the Annan plan was the first international measure that won support from Russia and China as well as the U.S. and Europe. But in the West, there is growing dismay at its unravelling, and the potential for a spillover across the region.
Annan stressed that “individual actions or interventions will not resolve the crisis” – an apparent reference to opposition fighters and the countries providing them with arms and financial support.“If we genuinely unite behind one process, and act and speak with one voice, I believe it is still possible to avert the worst and enable Syria to emerge from this crisis,” he said.
In his open briefing to the U.N. General Assembly earlier Thursday, Annan said that he had told Assad nine days ago in Damascus that he wasn’t implementing the peace plan and strongly urged him “to take bold and visible steps to now radically change his military posture.”
Annan said Assad had called militants the main obstacle, but he told diplomats from the U.N.’s 193 member states that while all parties must cease violence, “equally clearly the first responsibility lies with the government.”
Since his visit, Annan said “shelling of cities has intensified, government-backed militia seem to have free rein with appalling consequences ... and President Assad has not indicated a change of course.”
Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari insisted, however, that “the government of Syria has spared no efforts to implement its part of the Kofi Annan plan.” He said an unjustifiable massacre was taking place in his country but insisted the government was not responsible.
The violence in Syria has grown increasingly chaotic in recent months, and it is difficult to assign blame for much of the bloodshed. The government restricts journalists from moving freely, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts from either side. The opposition blames government forces and militias that support them known as Shabbihas while the government blames rebels and “armed terrorist groups.”
At the start of the General Assembly meeting, Assembly President Nassir Abdul-Aziz al-Nasser asked the 193-member world body to observe a minute of silence for Syrians killed in the latest massacres.
Ban called reports of another massacre “shocking and sickening,” saying “each day seems to bring new additions to the grim catalog of atrocities.”
He said it had been evident for many months that Assad and his government “have lost all legitimacy,” adding that “any regime or leader that tolerates such killing of innocents has lost its fundamental humanity.”
The U.N. chief strongly backed Annan’s call for unity, saying the international community must recognize that the inability of the government or opposition to engage in political dialogue “makes the prognosis extremely grave.”
Ban said the Annan plan remained the centerpiece of U.N. efforts, but in view of the deteriorating situation “I would welcome further international discussion on how we can act more effectively.”
“No one can predict how the situation in Syria will evolve,” the secretary-general said. “We must be prepared for any eventuality. We must be ready to respond to many possible scenarios.”
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, who also addressed the Assembly, called on all Arab states to recall their ambassadors and halt all diplomatic contact with the Syrian government. Earlier this month, it urged the Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria, a move welcomed Thursday by U.S. Deputy Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo.