Syria Crisis: Kofi Annan Appeal For Talks Sparks Anger

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: It's not looking good for a diplomatic solution in Syria. The head of Syria's main opposition group today rejected a United Nations call for dialogue with the government of Bashar al-Assad. The opposition leader said such talks would be pointless and unrealistic as long as the regime continues to massacre its own people. The UN call was made my special envoy Kofi Annan who is expected in Damascus tomorrow for talks with Syrian officials. The BBC's Jim Muir is following events from neighboring Lebanon. So, this refusal, Jim, by the opposition to have talks with the Syrian government, is it a major blow to hopes of a diplomatic solution to this conflict?

Jim Muir: Well, it's a standing position so it's not really surprising. Activists in general have long since been saying that the hands of the regime are too stained with blood for anybody to talk to them. The Arab League for example, also has dropped the world dialogue with the Syrian regime. It's calling for President Assad to pass power sideways to his vice president and to allow him to preside over a transitional period to democracy, elections and all that. The West indeed is also backing that same position, it's backing the Arab League initiative, and that is not in tune with the position actually taken by the special envoy, Kofi Annan, who in fact is calling for talks with all the parties on the ground, all the parties involved, which of course would include the regime. This is why nobody is betting too much on his mission because the authorities in Damascus seem determined to press ahead on the ground and crush any resistance they come across, especially armed resistance. They're also apparently, according to activists, shooting peaceful demonstrators as well as confronting armed opposition. So that process is going ahead almost irrespective of whatever diplomacy is going on.

Werman: Now, another UN official, UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos today visited one of the refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border, this after she had visited Syria in recent days. She said the the Syrian government had agreed to a preliminary humanitarian assessment mission. Can you tell us what that means?

Muir: That would mean that they would go around with the UN agencies and basically try and figure out who needs what on the ground, and obviously it would depend on where they would be allowed to go. Quite clearly, the regime is not going to take them to places where there is action actually happening on the ground, such as is now moving the focus more towards Idlib in the northwest, near the Turkish border, for example, but there's also been more shelling in Homs we're told by activists. So they're clearly not going to allow unrestricted access, which is what Lady Amos wanted. They will go around and see in what ways the UN can help them, but it quite clear from the Syrian point of view it would all have to be coordinated through Damascus and in no way impinge on Syrian sovereignty. They're very, very sticky about that. So, she has got I would say, the minimum that she could've hoped for and she's trying to help the Syrians. They're saying okay, help us, but very much on our terms.
Werman: And do you know, Jim, whether they go into any detail about humanitarian corridors, getting aid in and getting people out?

Muir: Baroness Amos did give them a detailed proposition on that count, four corridors that would come in, aid corridors that would come in from Turkey, possibly from Lebanon, from Jordan and so on, but clearly the Syrian government side is stalling on that. She said she wants unrestricted humanitarian access, but on that issue she's waiting to hear back from the Damascus authorities, so she has presented a plan, but she certainly hasn't got approval for it. As I say, anything that the Syrians suspect will infringe on their sovereignty, or have people coming across borders not under their supervision, they are not going to accept.

Werman: I guess another way of viewing this though is that Bashar al-Assad's government is just playing a waiting game, waiting on the UN, waiting on the rebels.

Muir: Exactly, well that is precisely what the opposition fear. They see this new mission being launched and they give Mr. Ghalioun, the head of the Syrian National Council, the kind of main opposition umbrella group, has said you know, we are concerned that this is just another thing that the Syrian government will use to gain time. They're trying to finish off their affair on the ground by crushing the opposition wherever they can find it. They need a bit more time for that and they fear they will exploit and go along with, but string along his mission in order to gain more time to do that.
Werman: The BBC's Jim Muir in Beirut, thanks a lot, Jim!

Muir: It's my pleasure.