BEIRUT — Employing his gloomiest assessment to date, United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan acknowledged Thursday that his six-point peace plan was not working and warned that Syria was headed down a path of “brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence and even all-out civil war.”
His address came as he and other officials condemned a massacre of dozens of civilians near the central city of Hama, and as diplomats proposed crafting a new strategy to bring peace to Syria that would engage other Middle East countries, including Iran.
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Annan urged world leaders to make it clear that failing to comply with the plan would carry unspecified consequences, presumably for Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government, Annan said, bore the “first responsibility” for ending the violence.
“We cannot allow mass killing to become part of everyday reality in Syria,” Annan said. “The crisis is escalating. The violence is getting worse. The abuses are continuing. The country is becoming more polarized and more radicalized. And Syria’s immediate neighbors are increasingly worried about the threat of spillover.”
Annan said that unless the fighting is halted, “all Syrians will lose.”
After a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council later, Annan spoke dejectedly of the prospects for his plan resulting in a negotiated settlement of the conflict and alluded to the need to consider other actions “if the plan is not working, or if we decide it’s not the way to go.”
Annan made it clear that divisions persist among key Security Council members on the scope of actions that should be considered, and he called for unity on the idea of including all regional forces with influence on either the Assad regime or the rebel groups fighting him.
“Syria is not Libya. It won’t implode; it will explode beyond its borders,” Annan said. Refugee outflows to Turkey and Jordan and sectarian fighting in Lebanon already demonstrate that the conflict threatens the entire region, he said.
It remained unclear how new intermediaries would succeed where Annan’s plan failed. The proposed “contact group” would still be deeply divided between the U.S. and European nations urging bolder intervention and sanctions on Damascus, and Russia and China, which would presumably be backed by newcomer Iran in their steadfast rejection of those measures.
U.S. and British officials have balked at any inclusion of Tehran, a staunch ally of Assad and the regional nemesis of the West. But Russia has backed the idea of an expanded meeting of nations that have influence with various factions in the 15-month-old uprising.
The forum being pushed by Moscow would include the five permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Syrian neighbors Turkey and Iran.
At the General Assembly on Thursday, Russia and China reiterated their support for the Annan peace plan but also reaffirmed their opposition to any solution involving military intervention in Syria or forced “regime change,” though both nations have said Assad’s survival is not a precondition if the Syrian people choose otherwise. The two powers have twice vetoed Security Council resolutions that condemned Assad’s crackdown on dissent and could have led to sanctions or other action against his government.
The United States and its allies, meantime, say Assad’s departure is a necessary outcome of any peace plan. The Obama administration is trying to persuade Russia to get aboard a plan similar to what happened in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh was eased out of power and replaced by his former deputy after a year of protests.
The State Department’s special representative on Syria, Fred Hof, was in Moscow on Thursday for talks with the Russians, the department said. There was no immediate word of the outcome of those talks.
In Istanbul, Turkey, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made it clear that the Annan plan — with its call for a cease-fire and withdrawal of government troops and heavy weapons from populated areas — is only one part of what Washington and its allies seek. In addition, Assad “must transfer power and depart Syria” and an “interim representative government must be established through negotiation,” Clinton said.
“The time has come for the international community to unite around a plan for post-Assad Syria,” Clinton said after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Although the Annan blueprint has widespread backing, the forced departure of Assad seemed to remain a red line for Russia and China.
Annan’s comments in New York came as word of a second large-scale massacre in two weeks emerged from near Hama. Opposition activists alleged that government shelling and execution-style killings by pro-government thugs had killed as many as 78 people, among them women and children. Video posted online showed rows of bodies in blankets as well as charred corpses, though it was impossible to confirm the origin of the footage.
Syrian state television said “terrorists” — as the government refers to armed rebels seeking to overthrow Assad — had committed a “horrific crime” in the Hama region. Security forces had tracked down the perpetrators and killed them, state TV reported.
U.N. observers, whose presence has helped confirm several other recent massacres, said they were prevented from arriving at the scene by military personnel and civilians. The monitors came under fire but no one was hurt, the U.N. said.
“Each day seems to bring new additions to the grim catalog of atrocities,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He accused Assad of tolerating the killing of innocents, saying he has “lost all legitimacy” as a leader.
The reported massacre came barely two weeks after more than 100 people, mostly women and children, were killed in the town of Houla, which caused worldwide denunciation of the Assad government. But Syrian officials denied any responsibility and blamed the killings on antigovernment “armed groups.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in Moscow that the latest massacre was one of a number of provocations aimed at undermining Annan’s plan
Special correspondent Rima Marrouch in Beirut and Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles contributed to this report.