U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has asked the U.N. Security Council for support in implementing an April 10 deadline for Syria to partially implement his peace plan, with a full ceasefire within 48 hours thereafter, despite Russian objections.
Annan told the 15-nation council behind closed doors that Syria has agreed to the idea of such a deadline, which would include the end of troop movements toward population centers, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and beginning the withdrawal of troops, U.N. diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Russia earlier rejected Arab and Western calls for a deadline to be set for Annan's plan, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying, “Ultimatums and artificial deadlines rarely help matters.”
Lavrov added that only the U.N. Security Council on which Russia wields veto power could put any time restrictions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s compliance with the six-point initiative.
“Annan has a Security Council mandate and it is up to the U.N. Security Council to decide who is complying with this plan and how,” he said.
The so-called “Friends of Syria” meeting of Arab and Western nations in Istanbul agreed this weekend to ask the United Nations to give Assad a deadline to cooperate with Annan’s solution to the year-long conflict.
The plan itself demands that Assad pull out his forces from major flashpoint cities and introduce a daily two-hour ceasefire that could let aid workers deliver supplies and treat the thousands of injured civilians.
But it puts forward no time frame in which Assad has to comply.
Lavrov said the peace plan would not work unless rebel forces also agreed to halt fire.
“The demands should be put to all sides of the barricades,” Lavrov said.
“We intend to be friends with both sides in Syria,” he added in reference to Russia’s past support for Assad.
The Russian foreign ministry had earlier issued a statement saying the “Friends of Syria” meet contradicted the objective of reaching a peaceful settlement by openly siding with the opposition.
“The promises and intentions to deliver direct military and logistical support to the armed... opposition that were voiced in Istanbul unquestionably contradict the goals of a peaceful settlement to the civil conflict in Syria,” the foreign ministry statement said.
Russia has been under mounting international pressure to break its Soviet-era ties with the Damascus leadership and call on Assad to step down.
Moscow has in recent weeks stepped up criticism of the Syrian strongman and accused the Damascus government of failing to follow Russia’s advice on ways out of the conflict.
Yet it has also accused the West of breaking international law by issuing unilateral calls for Assad’s ouster.
Lavrov said Monday that the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) that the Istanbul meeting recognized as the “legitimate representative” of all Syrians reflected the views of only a fraction of the country’s people.
“When decisions are made to call one group the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, one might jump to the conclusion that the other Syrians -- both organizations and the authorities -- are not legitimate,” Lavrov said.
“I think this approach is dangerous and works against the efforts being put forward by Kofi Annan.”
Homs still targeted
Meanwhile the carnage continued on the ground in Syria as government forces bombarded opposition targets in the city of Homs on Monday despite Assad’s promise to Annan to cease fire and withdraw his tanks and artillery.
Annan, who met Assad in Damascus on March 10 to discuss his peace plan, was due to brief the U.N. Security Council in New York later on Monday on whether he had seen any progress towards its implementation.
“Today doesn’t feel much different than yesterday or the day before, or the day before that,” opposition activist Waleed Fares said from inside Homs. “Shelling and killing.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist operation which collates reports from around Syria, reported 70 people killed on Sunday, including 12 civilian victims of shelling and sniper fire in Homs.
Nineteen soldiers and 12 rebels were killed in clashes, it said.
Five people were killed on Monday in the central province of Homs. In Syria’s second city of Aleppo, a bomb blast at a kiosk killed the owner, an Assad supporter, it said. At least two people were killed and eight wounded in army bombardments of villages in northern Idlib province, which borders Turkey.
Turkish officials said refugees were crossing the border at a rate of around 400 a day. Over 40,000 Syrians have taken refuge in neighboring countries since the unrest broke out a year ago, according to U.N. figures.
Pro-opposition areas of Homs have been under assault from government forces since early February, making the city a symbol of the year-long uprising against decades of Assad family rule and galvanizing international efforts to end the bloodshed.
Annan demanded last week that Assad immediately halt military action, and rebels of the Free Syrian Army rebels said they would stop shooting if he pulled heavy weaponry out of cities.
But Assad said he must maintain security in urban areas.
“It seems like the government took Kofi Annan’s plan the opposite way round,” Fares said. “Annan said to withdraw tanks, they bring more. He said to stop shelling, they shelled more.”
The United Nations says Syrian soldiers and security forces have killed more than 9,000 people over the past 12 months. Damascus says rebels have killed 3,000 troops and police.
Assad blames the unrest on foreign-backed “terrorists” and has put forward his own reform program, which his domestic foes and international opponents have dismissed.
On Monday, the official SANA news agency reported that plans for an election on May 7 were going ahead in which Syrians would be able to choose “whom they see fit to represent them.”
That is unlikely to mute international efforts to force Assad out.