Syria revolt enters 2nd year with regime on offensive
DAMASCUS, Syria - Syria's deadly revolt entered a second year Thursday, March 15, with the regime smashing rebel bastions and peace envoy Kofi Annan awaiting answers from Damascus before the United Nations re-enters the fray.
President Bashar al-Assad's camp and the opposition both called for huge demonstrations to mark the day, after troops on Wednesday, March 14, killed 20 people in Daraa, birthplace of the Arab Spring's longest-running conflict, monitors said.
UN-Arab League mediator Annan, meanwhile, urged Assad to speed up efforts to end the bloodletting in Syria.
The former UN chief had received the president's response to "concrete proposals" he submitted to the Syrian leader in Damascus last weekend but had more "questions and is seeking answers."
"Given the grave and tragic situation on the ground, everyone must realise that time is of the essence. As he said in the region, this crisis cannot be allowed to drag on," his spokesman added.
In Damascus, a foreign ministry spokesman said only that the authorities were "committed to cooperating in a positive manner with Annan's mission so long as there is goodwill to help Syria."
Annan is to brief the UN Security Council on his mission by videoconference from Geneva on Friday, March 9, diplomats in New York said.
One diplomat, briefed on the answers already sent to Annan, said on condition of anonymity: "We had always expected there would be obfuscation, there would be delay, there would be questions."
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the Security Council should adopt a resolution "immediately" demanding an end to the violence, saying it could change Assad's "political psychology."
"If he thinks he can weather this storm... he [has made] a serious misjudgment... He cannot continue like this. He has gone too deep, too far," Ban said.
Washington said Russia and China, which have vetoed two draft resolutions on Syria since October on the grounds they were unbalanced, were moving closer to the rest of the international community in their positions.
"You're now seeing public statements, both from Russia and from China, that are quite clearly saying that they are not interested in protecting Assad, that they are not interested in anything but something that ends the violence," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
After White House talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama also called for world leaders to speak with one voice against the regime in Damascus.
"The best thing that we can do right now is to make sure that the international community continues to unify around the fact that what the Syrian regime is doing is unacceptable," Obama said.
On the ground, security forces on Wednesday killed 13 civilians and seven army defectors in the southern city of Daraa where the revolt against Assad first broke out on March 15, 2011, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Also Wednesday, Noureddin al-Abdo, an activist in Idlib, confirmed the rebellious city in northwestern Syria had fallen after a four-day assault by regime forces.
The outgunned, rebel "Free Syrian Army (FSA) has withdrawn and regime forces have stormed the entire city and are carrying out house-to-house searches," said Abdo, reached by telephone from Beirut.
The army launched a major offensive in Idlib province near the Turkish border last Saturday, March 11, bombarding the city and sweeping into rural areas in a bid to root out armed insurgents.
The capture of Idlib comes two weeks after regime forces stormed the Baba Amr rebel stronghold in Homs city, central Syria, following a month-long blitz that activists said left hundreds dead.
Russia, which has been accused of weakening the international response to the crisis by blocking Security Council action, on Wednesday criticised Assad for his "big delay" in implementing reforms.
In a rare public rebuke from Moscow to the Syrian leader, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Assad of "inertia" on the crisis that rights activists say has cost more than 8,500 lives in the past 12 months.
"The side in the conflict in Syria on which we have influence is the government of Bashar al-Assad. Unfortunately, his actions, in practical terms, reflect our advice far from always and far from swiftly," Lavrov said.
"Yes, he has adopted useful laws to renew the system -- to make it more pluralistic than the one-party system that existed there -- but with a big delay," he told the lower house parliament, the State Duma.
On Tuesday, Assad issued a decree setting May 7 as the date for parliamentary elections under a new constitution adopted in February, with Washington dismissing the planned vote as "ridiculous."
With Syria's isolation growing, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Italy on Wednesday closed down their embassies in Damascus in protest at the regime's bloody crackdown on dissent. - Agence France-Presse