Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan on Wednesday will launch a diplomatic ‘mission impossible’ aiming to convince Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to silence the guns blamed for thousands of deaths in the past year, as hundreds of Syrians crossed into Lebanon in the past 24 hours to escape the heaviest shelling of their border towns.
Annan will hold talks with Arab League leaders in Cairo in a last chance to send a signal of his intentions before he heads to Damascus on Saturday as joint special envoy for the United Nations and the 22-nation Arab bloc.
Few hold out any chance that he will be able to halt the conflict, which will be one year old on March 15.
The International Crisis Group think tank said it is offering “very long odds.” The chances for diplomacy in Syria are “slim,” added Richard Gowan of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Annan himself called it “a tough challenge” last week when he was named, according to AFP.
But the Nobel Peace Prize winner is seen as one of the few international figures with the diplomatic muscle to pull off such a coup.
Annan had regular contacts with Assad when he was secretary general though he admitted they have not spoken for some time. His criticism of NATO’s action in Libya last year could also give him credibility with Syria and its dwindling band of supporters.
The immediate aim of the first Damascus talks, however, will be to secure a humanitarian pause in the fighting and access to the protest cities where the U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed.
Then, Annan said, he would “work with the Syrians in coming up with a peaceful solution which respects their aspirations and eventually stabilizes the country.”
Annan has insisted that he must be the only international mediator dealing with Assad, a message backed by current U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon who highlighted the “immense challenges” and said his predecessor “needs the full and undivided support of the international community.”
He will in particular need the backing of Russia and China, which vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria. Both have their own envoys in the region.
Li Huaxin, China’s former ambassador to Syria, will be in Damascus on Wednesday. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will be in Cairo on Saturday to meet Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.
With Arab opinion turning against Assad, pressure is growing on them to condemn the violence that Ban called “atrocious” and “grisly.”
The U.N., and diplomats, say they do not expect to see Russia or China launch initiatives that go against Annan.
“I suspect there will be cooperation with Mr Annan. Mr Annan will probably take into account what they are doing and he will be discussing the situation with them," said deputy U.N. spokesman Eduardo del Buey.
Annan also has to cope with the tough line from some Arab nations on Syria -- particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz held a meeting with the Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Than late Monday in Riyadh, which focused on the Syrian crisis and means of ending violent crackdown against civilians, Al Arabiya reported.
The United Nations says more than 7,500 civilians have died in Syria’s crackdown on protests against Assad’s government.
An Arab League plan adopted on Jan. 22 calls for Assad to hand over power to a deputy. Russia, in particular, vehemently opposes any such idea.
Ban indicated however that his super-envoy would not just press this plan.
Annan would have “broader flexibility” to have a better chance of getting through to the Damascus government, Ban said. “This is what we have agreed, rather than sticking to any specific point” in the Arab League plan, he said.
So Annan is considered to have the diplomatic muscle, but Assad seems just as determined not to end his assault or step down.
Hundreds cross into Lebanon
Braving army patrols and winter weather, hundreds of Syrians crossed into Lebanon in the past 24 hours to escape the heaviest shelling of their border towns since the uprising against Assad began last March.
In the hillside town of Arsal in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, residents said 100 to 150 families arrived from Syria on Sunday -- one of the biggest refugee influxes so far, according to Reuters.
Some Western powers expressed hope that Vladimir Putin’s election as Russian president on Sunday might provide an opening for a change in policy.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called Putin on Monday to discuss Syria and other matters of international concern, a spokesman for Cameron said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Moscow had isolated itself with regard to the Arab world and the international community following its stance on Syria.
Juppe said he did not think it was impossible to get a U.N. Security Council resolution and that this was something that Paris would be working on in the coming days.
Western envoys at the United Nations said last week that the United States had drafted an outline for a new resolution demanding access for humanitarian aid workers in besieged Syrian towns and an end to the violence there.