Diplomats convene emergency session in effort to stem violence in Syria

Posted June 27, 2012, at 9:19 p.m.

BEIRUT — With a new warning that strife-torn Syria confronts a “catastrophic” fate, the United Nations said Wednesday it will convene an emergency session Saturday in a bid to salvage a faltering, U.N.-brokered peace plan that has failed to halt the nation’s slide toward civil war.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed to participate in the “Action Group for Syria” meeting in Geneva after special U.S. envoy Kofi Annan excluded Iran, Washington’s arch-enemy and a stalwart ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. British officials also welcomed the Annan plan and Foreign Secretary William Hague announced he would attend the Saturday session.

The top U.S. diplomat said Annan had devised a “political transition road map” that provides some hope for resolving the bloody conflict that is escalating into an unchecked cycle of sectarian murders, kidnappings and atrocities by both sides, according to a new U.N. report.

“The situation on the ground is dangerously and quickly deteriorating,” the U.N. Human Rights Council wrote. “Further militarization of the crisis will be catastrophic.”

Details of Annan’s new “road map” were not disclosed. Ministers meeting in Geneva will be tasked with agreeing on “guidelines and principles for a Syrian-led political transition,” said a statement from Annan’s office. But Clinton clearly endorsed the approach as an improvement on the special envoy’s failed entreaties to Assad to take “bold steps” to implement a U.N.-brokered six-point peace plan.

U.S. officials have insisted on a “political transition” mandate, a phrase that does not appear in Annan’s original six-point plan. Clinton said she had personally spoken with Annan three times in the past 24 hours.

“If Kofi Annan is able to lay down a political transition road map … that is endorsed by Russia and China, for example, that sends a very different message,” Clinton told reporters in Helsinki. “That’s the first time that the international community will really evidence a direction that I think Assad will have to respond to.”

Russia and China, veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have twice blocked resolutions condemning Assad’s crackdown on dissent that could have opened the door for U.N.-authorized sanctions or even military intervention.

There has been no public indication that Russia or China has ended its opposition to any international action designed to force Assad to leave Syria. Washington and its allies have insisted on the departure of Assad, whose family has ruled Syria in autocratic fashion for more than 40 years.

U.S. officials say Assad is losing control of the country, citing increased military defections, fighting nearing the capital, Damascus, and Syria’s downing last week of a Turkish military jet — an incident that infuriated neighboring Turkey, a regional powerhouse.

“We have made it clear to the Russians that the outcome they are most concerned about, which would be a sectarian civil war, is made more likely, not less likely, by the international community’s failure to take a strong position vis a vis the Assad regime,” Clinton said.

Both the government and the armed opposition have widely ignored Annan’s peace plan, which, among other things, calls on the government to withdraw its forces and heavy armor from populated areas and allow people to protest freely. Many analysts say Assad’s government would collapse if such steps were agreed to. At least 10,000 people have died since the rebellion erupted almost 16 months ago.

The new U.N. report found that violence had increased dramatically since an April 12 “cease fire” began and that abuses by both sides, including extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and torture, have become rampant. As well, the fractured rebel militias present more and more of a challenge to Assad’s forces, “who are exhibiting a certain fatigue.”

Government forces were accused of “indiscriminate shelling,” firing on peaceful protesters and inflaming communal tensions. The inquiry reported that some prisoners were forced to proclaim, “There is no God but Bashar” — a humiliation for the mostly Sunni Muslim population that predominates among the rebels.

Investigators also documented “a growing number of incidents where victims appear to have been targeted because of their religious affiliation.”

The report quoted a rebel fighter saying that Syrian soldiers who were members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect “are normally killed immediately upon capture, while soldiers from other sects are offered the chance to join the FSA,” referring to the Free Syrian Army, the rebel umbrella group.

Violence continued to rage Wednesday in Syria, where the official Syrian news agency charged that “armed terrorist groups” — its label for anti-Assad rebels — had stormed a pro-government television station outside Damascus, ransacking and bombing the compound and killing seven people: three journalists and four security guards.

The brazen attack on the TV station came as accounts of fighting escalated in the restive suburbs of the capital, long insulated from the violence elsewhere in Syria.

The official news service said attackers set off explosives inside the offices of the pro-government Ikhbariya channel and executed journalists “in cold blood,” labeling the attack “a massacre against journalism and the freedom of media.”

Syrian television broadcast footage of the still-smoldering TV studios. Blood was streaked across a sidewalk outside the charred wreckage.

Special correspondent Rima Marrouchin Beirut and staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

©2012 Los Angeles Times

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