By Edward Yeranian and Carla Babb
International peace envoy Kofi Annan is in Syria to salvage a peace plan that he admits is not being comprehensively implemented, as rights activists report a government assault on the central city of Hama that killed at least 34 people.
After arriving in the Syrian capital, Damascus on Monday, Annan called on all sides to lay down arms and help resolve Syria’s 15-month conflict peacefully.
“I urge the government to take bold steps to signal that it is serious in its intention to resolve this crisis peacefully and for everyone involved to help create the right context for a credible political process. And this message of peace is not only for the government, but for everyone, every individual with a gun,” Annan said.
Syrian officials said the former U.N. secretary-general would meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem later in the day and President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday.
His arrival came after rights activists said security forces bombarded neighborhoods in the flashpoint city Hama from Sunday into early Monday, in retaliation for rebel attacks on government positions. They said the fighting killed soldiers, rebels and at least 13 civilians.
The casualties could not be independently confirmed, and a spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Syria said observers have not been able to enter the city due to security concerns.
Still, Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. observer mission, said Monday he was seeing “positive signs” in some regions, as his team pushes for dialogue and stability. He said he was prepared to brief Annan on what the observers have witnessed so far.
“I look forward to be able to convey my impression of the Syrian people, also to share with him that the suffering of the Syrian people is something that they do not deserve, and we will then have discussions at different levels with different people on whatever we can do to bring this forward in a positive direction,” he said.
Houla massacre outrage
The U.N. Security Council has issued a statement strongly condemning killings in the central village of Houla, where U.N. observers confirmed the deaths of dozens of civilians. The monitors who viewed the bodies of Houla victims saw wounds from artillery and gunfire, while finding fresh tank tracks in the area.
Annan said Monday he was “shocked and horrified” by the “tragic” killings of at least 108 people in Houla on Friday. The U.N. mission in Syria’s spokesperson, Sausan Ghosheh, told VOA its observers have been in Houla every day since the violence.
“They are trying to establish the facts and continuing to monitor the situation,” Ghosheh said.
Syria’s ambassador to the U.N., Bashar Ja’afari, repeated his government’s denial of any role in the Houla killings, blaming them instead on armed terrorist groups that Damascus says are behind the rebellion.
Arab satellite channels showed live video from anti-government demonstrations outside the northern city of Idlib and several other towns protesting the Houla massacre.
Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami says there is an incredible, escalating hatred between Syria’s majority Sunni community and President Assad’s minority Alawite sect. He says the Houla massacre marks a “turning point” in the Syrian conflict.
“The mask has fallen, and we are right in the middle of the sectarian vengeance, and we will see elements of what we saw in Lebanon, Iraq and perhaps even worse,” Ajami said.
Human Rights Watch wants the international community to investigate Friday’s killings.
“There has to be more involvement by the international community. There has to be more pressure on the [Syrian] government to stop its crackdown. And there has to be proper investigations,” the group’s deputy director for the Middle East, Nadim Houry, told VOA. “People need to be able to point fingers.”
Syria allies show support
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday both sides are to blame for the massacre. Russia is a longtime ally of Syria and has shielded President Assad from U.N. sanctions sought by Western and Arab powers who oppose his 11-year rule.
Lavrov downplayed Russian support for Assad at a news conference with visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
“We do not support the Syrian government. We support Kofi Annan’s [peace] plan,” Lavrov said.
Britain has said the Syrian government is primarily responsible for Syria’s violence.
“It is part of the pattern of behavior of the Assad regime, I believe, to commit atrocities and then try to blame those atrocities on other people,” Hague said following talks with his Russian counterpart. “So we must always have our eyes open to that, difficult as it will be to determine what has happened in any individual incident.”
China also has blocked the U.N. Security Council from imposing sanctions on Syria. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Monday that China is “shocked” by the Houla killings but stopped short of directly criticizing the Assad government. Beijing called on all sides in the Syrian conflict to implement Mr. Annan’s plan for ending the violence “immediately.”
The foreign ministry of Iran, another Assad ally, blamed the massacre on terrorists trying to create chaos and instability in Syria and said the foreign powers backing such attacks are doomed to fail.
The United Nations says more than 10,000 people have been killed in Syria since the government began its crackdown on dissent in March 2011.
Yeranian reported from Cairo and Babb from Washington. VOA’S Scott Bobb in Beirut, Jessica Golloher in Moscow and Shannon Van Sant in Beijing contributed to this report.