'Honest effort' from Assad, action plan from Russia and Arab league

Syrian President Bashar Assad has told UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan Damascus is ready to make "an honest effort "to halt violence in the country. Russia and the Arab League also agreed on a joint five-point position in support of Annan’s mission.

Speaking with former UN Secretary-General Annan in Damascus on Saturday, Assad said "Syria is ready to make a success of any honest effort to find a solution for the events it is witnessing," SANA quoted him as saying.

However, Assad asserted "no political dialogue or political activity can succeed while there are armed terrorist groups operating and spreading chaos and instability."

The high-profile meeting was intended to set in motion a “political process” to curb spiraling violence and prevent further militarization of the conflict.

The talks were underway place amid incoming media reports about fresh clashes in the northwestern city of Idlib. One activist told Reuters by phone that "regime forces have just stormed into Idlib with tanks and heavy shelling is now taking place."

Opposition fighters claimed to have shot down a helicopter and destroyed six armored vehicles in the fighting.

In line with Kofi Annan’s efforts to bring peace to Syria, Russia and the Arab League agreed upon a joint five-point position in Cairo Saturday.

“First, to stop violence, wherever it comes from. Second, to create an impartial and free monitoring mechanism. Third, no external interference. Fourth, unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid to all Syrians. Fifth, first support for [UN and LAS Special Envoy] Kofi Annan's mission in order to start political dialogue between the government and all opposition groups," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

Despite the meeting’s positive outcome, there were moments of tension as well.

Lavrov was chastised by Qatari and Saudi Arabian Foreign ministers for Russia’s previous UN veto on Syria Security Council resolutions during his visit to the Arab league headquarters.

Saudi Arabia also claimed Russia’s veto had empowered Assad to intensify his violent crackdown.

Russia previously vetoed Security Council resolutions along with China, saying they had taken an unbalanced approach towards the government and the opposition.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani also took issue with Damascus and Moscow referring to the Syrian opposition as armed gangs.

"There are no armed gangs. The systematic killing came from the Syrian government side for many months. After that the people were forced to defend themselves so the regime labeled them armed gangs," Reuters cites him as saying.

He also said the ceasefire proposed by Russia and China was insufficient.

But Lavrov shot back, saying Moscow was not seeking to protect any regimes in the region.

"My country has always supported people's rights and their striving for freedom and development," he said.

Lavrov further warned the international community should not take sides in the conflict, saying any new UN Security Council resolution could find approval if it is unbiased.

"This resolution has a chance to be agreed upon, provided we are not guided by the desire to support the opposition armed groups to win the battle in the cities," Lavrov said.

"But if we are driven by the desire to make sure there is no fighting in the cities and towns, then the relevant proposals are on the table and we have plenty of opportunities to agree on them," he continued. 

 ‘Disappointing stance’: Annan’s visit lacks bipartisan support

Meanwhile, opposition refusal to open dialogue with President Assad has cast doubt over Annan’s diplomatic mission in Syria.

Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, the Paris-based chairman of the opposition group the Syrian National Council, said on Friday that dialogue with Assad was out of the question while Syrians were being massacred every day. He called Kofi Annan’s stance “disappointing” and said that no solution to the conflict would be effective if not “accompanied by military intervention.”

“He may have success in Syria, but the people outside don’t want to see him succeed; they want to see his mission aborted,” Mark Almond a visiting professor at Turkey’s Bilkent university told RT regarding Annan’s visit.

“The opposition in Paris doesn’t want to talk. I suspect they fear that if there were talks, if there was to be representation gathered together from across Syria they wouldn’t necessarily be a majority,” he stressed.

­Cracks appearing in Assad regime?

­Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency said 234 Syrians have fled into Turkey since Thursday adding to the 10,000-strong refugee camps in Turkey’s southern province Hatay.

This follows the defection of Syrian Deputy Oil Minister Abdo Hussameldin on Thursday with several military leaders following suit next day.

The White House has greeted the defection with enthusiasm, signaling it as a sign that the Assad regime is cracking up from within and will eventually fall.

However, senior US intelligence officials have countered claims the Assad government is in danger.

The officials said Assad’s inner circle is “remaining steadfast,” with little indication that senior figures in the regime are inclined defect, despite the Obama administration and its allies best efforts, the Washington Post reports.

Noting the overall strength of the Syrian military, one of the US intelligence officials responsible for tracking the conflict maintained Assad “is very much in charge.”