Special Envoy Kofi Annan told the U.N. Security Council today in a closed-door session that an expanding U.N. monitoring mission still stands a chance of calming the violence in Syria, despite a spike in killings on Monday, including a report of a government attack on civilians in the town of Hama after U.N. observers left the town.
Annan, a former U.N. secretary general who is serving as the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria, delivered a carefully worded briefing to the council that both raised concern about the government's conduct in recent weeks but urged the council to maintain support for his fragile diplomatic bid.
"Our patience has been tested severely-close to its limits," he said. "But we have also seen signs that there is the possibility for the parties to implement a cessation of violence, which can lead to a political process and peaceful way out of the crisis."
Annan said he intends to press ahead with his efforts to start political talks between the government and the fragmented political, civil and military opposition groups. He would approach the Syrian government at the "appropriate time," he said, and request that President Bashar al-Assad appoint a representative to the talks. At the same time, he said his team is pressing the opposition to develop a "more inclusive and representative" approach to political talks.
Annan said that while it is difficult for a handful of U.N. monitors to "assess the level of violence" throughout Syria, the scale of killing had "as a whole" decreased since the U.N.-brokered cease-fire took effect on April 12. However, the violence spiked yesterday, he admitted, citing an upsurge of killing in Hama, where government forces reportedly attacked civilians in a suburb of the town following a visit by U.N. monitors.
"I am concerned by media reports that, before and after [U.N.] observer visits, government troops have been active in civilian areas and launched attacks," he said. "I am particularly alarmed by reports that government troops entered Hama yesterday after observers departed, firing automatic weapons and killing a significant number of people."
The move comes as the U.N. Security Council is straining to maintain its unity despite widely divergent approaches by the council's key powers. The United States -- and its European and Arab allies -- have begun clamoring for a tougher approach to Syria, arguing that a resort to sanctions, and possibly stepped-up support for the armed opposition, is required to prod the government into meeting its obligations. Russia and China, meanwhile, have preferred an exclusively diplomatic strategy backed, reinforced by diplomatic pressure on both sides to pursue political talks.
Annan, meanwhile, held out the hope that a beefed up U.N. monitoring mission, which may expand to a force of some 300 unarmed observers in the coming weeks, could restore calm, citing the reduction of violence in the town of Homs following the arrival of U.N. observers. "There is a chance to expand and consolidate the cessation of violence," he said. "Observers not only see what is going on, but their presence has the potential to change the political dynamics."
Annan concluded that Syria's compliance with its commitments under his peace plan -- known as the six-point plan -- has been "partial" at best, noting that the "gestures" the government has taken so far "do not yet amount to the full and clear signal" of its commitment to embrace political reform. But he also hinted that any political settlement he is likely to deliver will involve moral compromises.
"Under the circumstances, the peace we are trying to build could never be perfect -- and we have all been shocked by events in Syria," he said. "But if we succeed, the prospects are far better than any promised through war."
Annan said that he had received written assurances on Saturday from Syrian Foreign Minister Wallid Moallem that "the withdrawal of massed troops and heavy weapons from in and around population centers is now complete and military operations have ceased." Annan said he was "encouraged" by Moallem's pledge but that "it should be understood that the only promises that count are the promises that are kept."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.