Former UN leader meets Syrian president in Damascus for talks denounced by opposition as pointless while killing continues
Kofi Annan has begun talks with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to press for a political solution to end the bloodshed in Syria.
The two men met at the presidential palace in Damascus as Syrian opposition leaders denounced the talks, claiming that any deal with Assad was unthinkable while civilians were being killed by government forces.
Opposition activists said at least 26 people were killed across Syria on Friday, but there were also signs of more cracks in the Assad regime. A Turkish official said two Syrian generals, a colonel and two sergeants had defected to Turkey on Thursday, soon after Syria’s deputy oil minister, Abdo Hussameldin, and a brigadier general announced their desertion of the regime on YouTube.
Western diplomats speculated on Friday that the public nature of their renunciation of the Assad government had encouraged other high-ranking officers to follow their example.
The new defectors were among 234 Syrians who have crossed into Turkey since Thursday. The defections were welcomed by EU foreign ministers meeting in Copenhagen, where they were portrayed as a sign that sanctions against the Damascus government were working.
“It is very good news that clearly high-ranking state and military officials are increasingly turning away from the Assad regime,” said Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, speaking in Berlin before his departure for the Danish capital. “The process of disintegration of the Assad regime has begun; the signs of erosion will continue. No country can be led in the long term with cruelty and repression.”
Ahead of Saturday’s meeting in Damascus, Annan, a former UN secretary general who has been appointed joint UN-Arab League envoy, said he was taking “realistic” proposals to halt the killing, but did not go into details.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said on Friday that Annan’s priority was to immediately halt all fighting by government forces and opposition fighters, simultaneously if possible.
Ban said a ceasefire should be quickly followed by inclusive political talks to resolve the year-long conflict.
Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said any talks with Assad were pointless as long as the regime continued to massacre its own people.
“It feels like we are watching the same movie being repeated over and over again,” Ghalioun told the Associated Press in an interview from Paris. “My fear is that, like other international envoys before him, the aim is to waste a month or two of pointless mediation efforts.”
The UN humanitarian co-ordinator, Lady Amos, said on Friday that Syria had agreed to a joint mission to assess the country’s emergency relief needs, but added that the regime had to do more.
“While this is a necessary first step, it remains essential that a robust and regular arrangement be put in place, which allows humanitarian organisations unhindered access to evacuate the wounded and deliver desperately needed supplies,” Amos told journalists in Ankara after touring Syrian refugee camps along the Turkish border.
In Beijing, China announced on Friday that it was sending its own envoy to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France to explain its proposal for a Syrian ceasefire. The foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said the assistant foreign affairs minister, Zhang Ming, would meet Arab League leaders during the seven-day trip, which begins on Sunday.
The conflict in Syria is now one of the bloodiest of the Arab spring, with the UN saying more than 7,500 people have been killed. Activists put the number at more than 8,000.
from Julian Borger, Damien Pearse