International divisions over Syria were laid bare today as Kofi Annan issued a blunt warning that world powers must end their “destructive competition” over the future of the Assad regime even as Hillary Clinton demanded that Russia and China “get off the sidelines” and support the Syrian people.
Clinton used a conference of the Friends of Syria group in Paris to demand that Russia and China join the three western members of the UN security council to pressure Assad over an escalating conflict that has left 15,000 dead and is inflaming the wider region.
But Annan, the UN envoy to Syria who conspicuously stayed at his Geneva HQ and sent his two deputies to Paris, told the Guardian the bickering had to stop. He also insisted that Iran had a role to play in resolving the crisis – a position that is vigorously opposed by the west because it is a key supporter of Assad.
The Friends of Syria group promised to “massively increase” aid to Syria’s rebels.
On another day of violence and mass demonstrations across Syria the opposition Local Co-ordination Committees said 50 people had been killed by security forces. The Syrian army took control of the rebel stronghold of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. Fighting was reported in the Kafr Souseh area of Damascus, where many government offices are located.
In Paris, France’s President François Hollande sported a “peace for Syria” wristband as his government trumpeted the defection of a brigadier from Syria’s elite Republican Guard. The Syrian National Council hailed the flight of Manaf Tlass as a “huge blow” for the regime. Other opposition supporters downplayed its effect. Tlass is the son of a former Syrian defence minister and a pillar of the Sunni majority that is ruled over by the Assad family’s Alawite sect.
Clinton called for “real and immediate consequences” for non-compliance with the peace plan, including sanctions against the regime, but with Russia and China boycotting the event, there was no chance of agreement on punitive action under Chapter 7 of the UN charter. “What can every nation and group represented here do?” Clinton asked. “I ask you to reach out to Russia and China, and to not only urge but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.
“I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all, nothing at all, for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime,” she said. “The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price. Because they are holding up progress, blockading it. That is no longer tolerable.”
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, rebuffed Clinton’s criticism as “incorrect”.
Last weekend in Geneva Russia and China refused to back a call that implied that Assad must step down as a prelude to a “Syrian-led political transition”. But Annan made it clear that western criticism of Russia, a longstanding supporter of Assad, was not enough.
“Russia does have influence and can encourage the Syrian government to implement fully the six-point [peace] plan and security council resolutions. But this task cannot be left to the Russians alone. I expect Iran to play a role. Those governments – the US and the Friends of Syria – that have influence with the opposition should also play their role. If they continue with this destructive competition everyone will lose and the Syrians will be the greatest losers.
“They [the west] accuse the Russians of arming the [Syrian] government. The Russians accuse them of arming the opposition and flooding the place with weapons which will lead to uncontrolled civil war. This is instead of coming together to see what can be done.”
Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, the leading Arab hawk on Syria, called for the security council to be sidestepped. “We are ready to take part in any effort of any kind to free the Syrian people of this tragedy they are in,” he said at the Paris conference.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming and financing the Free Syrian Army. The US says it is providing communications and “non-lethal” aid but, like Turkey, is thought to be helping co-ordinate weapons deliveries.
Annan said he did not intend to resign in the face of criticism that his consensus-building diplomacy was getting nowhere as Syria bleeds. A ceasefire brokered in April has never been implemented and the country has since slipped into all-out war.
It was, he said, “unfair” to criticise him personally, as have some who refer to his role as head of UN peacekeeping operations during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the massacre of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs at Srebrenica the following year. The implication is that his record makes him the wrong man to be leading negotiations, which – however well-intentioned – provide an excuse for inaction and buying time for the Assad regime to continue the killing.
“I am worried about the people of Syria,” he said. “My only concern is them. If one can help save at least one life, I will be happy. I am worried about the alternative that will lead to further militarisation of the conflict. I have nothing to prove. As a retiree I could have continued sitting in my garden. But it was difficult to say no when I was approached. When you have been in the game for a while and you have footprints people will use them for you or against you. When I decide to take a job or decide to resign it is uniquely my decision.”