|By renowned Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat|
International envoy Kofi Annan says Syrian troops appear to be intensifying mass arrests and torture in rebellious communities.
Diplomats say Annan made the comments on Tuesday in a closed briefing to the UN Security Council via videoconference from Geneva.
One diplomat said Annan did not sound optimistic. "I won't call him optimistic," the diplomat said of Annan's briefing behind closed-doors. He quoted Annan as saying his six-point peace plan is not an "open-ended" commitment and it is "possibly the last chance" to avoid a civil war.
He also quoted Annan as saying violence must stop and a credible political process must start, "not like yesterday's elections."
According to other diplomats, Annan said the onus remains on the Damascus government to create a situation in which all Syrians will reject further militarization of the conflict. He said, "Limited progress has been achieved on military operations, but much more remains to be done."
He said unacceptable levels of violence and abuses are continuing, and government troops continue to be present in and around cities and towns but in some smaller formations. He said the presence of UN observers and interventions in specific instances appear to have had a calming effect, adding that there have been fewer large-scale operations by the government.
Annan said a drop in military operations is not meaningful if replaced by other forms of violence after a year of serious abuses, noting there have been extensive human rights violations and denial of the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.
He was particularly concerned by reports human rights violations are continuing and perhaps increasing.
On the release of prisoners, part of his six-point plan, Annan said he had expected much faster progress and a much higher number of releases.
On the humanitarian situation, he said one million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and insufficient progress has been made on humanitarian access.
He strongly urged the government to accept conditions for the scaling up of humanitarian assistance without delay, noting that while steps have been taken, the government has clearly not responded to people’s needs.
Annan later told reporters the United Nations couldn’t allow Syria to descend into civil war. He said since a shaky cease-fire went into effect last month, Syrian forces have reduced their bombardment of rebels and opposition strongholds. But he added that Syrian security forces continue to operate in and around centers of the 14-month opposition uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The transcript of his press conference:
Annan: Good evening ladies and gentlemen,
I have just finished briefing the Security Council on the situation in Syria and I was able to tell them how proud I am of the colleagues on the ground – unarmed observers and civilian experts – who have shown incredible courage in the work they have been sent down to do.
And I also expressed my appreciation for the Member States who have offered observers for the mission and also helped us airlift some of our equipment. And I think if you had an opportunity to listen – I was very pleased also with the two departments in New York, who have done everything possible to deploy as fast as possible.
We started slowly but they have given us an assurance that by the end of this month, the whole 300 observers would be on the ground and I believe their presence will make quite a difference. We have been small in numbers but even where we have been able to place two or three observers, they have had a calming effect. And I think when they are fully deployed, and working as a team, establishing relations with the people, we will see much greater impact on the work that they are there to do.
There has been some decrease in the military activities but there are still serious violations in the cessation of violence that was agreed and the levels of violence and abuses are unacceptable.
Government troops and armor are still present, though in smaller formations.
There have been worrying episodes of violence by the Government, but we have also seen attacks against Government forces, troops and installations, and there has been a spate of bombings, which are really worrying, and, I am sure, creates incredible insecurity among the civilian population.
However, it is also clear, as I have said earlier, that the presence of our observers, and, in situations where they have intervened specifically, have not only had a calming effect, but sometimes they have been able to get the forces involved to do the right thing.
There has been, as I said, less shelling, but I also emphasized to the Council, that the need for human rights abuses to come to an end cannot be underestimated. This is part of the plan, part of what the mission is all about, and I think once we are fully deployed we will be able to have even greater impact in this area.
And it must be understood that we need to ensure that all aspects of the six-point plan are implemented to create a conducive environment for us to move on to the political dialogue.
It will be extremely difficult to make good progress on dialogue if the current conditions persist. I also told Members of the Council that I believe that the UN supervision mission is possibly the only remaining chance to stabilize the country.
And I’m sure I’m not telling you any secret when I tell you that there is a profound concern that the country could otherwise descend into full civil war and the implications of that are quite frightening. We cannot allow that to happen.
I hope both the government and all components of the opposition understand this, and see this fragile but real opportunity to bring the situation under control. The violence must stop and a credible political process must begin for the sake of the Syrian people who have suffered so much, and whose welfare must be at the centre of everything we try to do.
I will take a few questions.
Q: Mr. Kofi Annan, when you talk about the political process, can you talk about the parliamentary elections yesterday in Syria in this political process?
Annan: I think the electoral process, the election of yesterday, was an initiative of the government and they had planned it. When I talk of a political process, which would be an outcome of dialogue and discussions, a national dialogue between Syrians and the Government, which could also lead, which may also lead to elections; this is not that election. This was a separate election and I think the Syrian authorities understand that depending on the outcome of the dialogue, another election may be necessary.
Q: What’s the biggest priority right now for your plan to progress?
Annan: I think the biggest priority, as I said, first of all we need to stop the killing. We need to stop the killing and we are pushing very hard for that -- not only with the government and the parties on the other side, but also talking to governments with influence to support us in this process.
We also need to get humanitarian assistance to those in need, and we are not where we want to be on that and discussions are ongoing on the humanitarian issue.
But it’s a six-point plan and all the six points must be implemented comprehensively. And I think if we do that and we send a powerful political signal that we are ready to resolve this issue peacefully, we stand a better chance of making faster progress when we bring the people to the political table.
Q: Concerning the fragility of the ceasefire, are there any specific measure that you can propose or the UN are willing to take?
Annan: I think the message should go out loud and clear to the government, which has a greater responsibility in terms of its size to really do whatever it can to reduce the violence; but the same goes to the other armed groups. They should think of the people who have been caught in the middle for about 15 months, day and night, hearing guns, their rights abused and traumatized, and really give peace a chance.
Yes, we may be told it’s extremely difficult to get everyone to honor their commitments and obey the order to lay down their arms but we all remember that they did it on the 12th of April. It was quiet on the 12th of April. So they are in control, both sides. And if you can do it for one day, why don’t you do it for a week, for a month?
Give peace a chance and give the people of Syria a break. Why do they have to put up with this trauma?
Q: Do you think President Assad is worried about the consequences for him personally, if your plan does not succeed, do you think he should be worried? And have you warned him about the consequences of failure?
Annan: I don’t carry warnings and threats. I mediate and negotiate and try to get people moving in the right direction.
I know lots of questions have been asked about what happens if the plan fails. I am waiting for some suggestions as to what else we do. I think if there are better ideas, I will be the first to jump onto it.
I think the international community -- through the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Arab League -- have endorsed this approach and we are trying to push it as hard as we can to make it work. We may well conclude down the line that it doesn’t work and a different tack has to be taken. And that will be a very sad day, a tough day for the region. But my appeal to those with guns, my appeal to those who have taken – I was going to say the people prisoners, because in a way there are frightened – is to really think of them, think of the people, think of Syria, think of the region and disarm and come to the table. They all tell me they are ready to talk. We should do it sooner rather than later.
Q: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said yesterday it is a race against time to avoid civil war. So do you hope that with the deployment of observers by the end of the month, things will already change? Are you sure you are going to win this race? Is there a deadline when you can take other steps?
Annan: Nothing is sure. Nothing is sure. What we have to do is to do our best and hope the better forces in us will prevail and lead us to put down the arms and do what is right. If it fails, as the Secretary-General has warned, and it were to lead into a civil war, it will not affect only Syria, it will have an impact on the whole region. This is why we should all be so concerned for the Syrians, for Syria, and for a region that for geo-political reasons we should all be concerned about.