Known as Syria’s mouthpiece, Beirut’s daily al-Akhbar has a proven record of privileged access to authoritative news and views from Damascus.
Today, the paper’s front-page screamer consists of four words: “The Assad-Annan agreement.”
Though bylined Jean Aziz, the front-page lead actually highlights what I deem to be the minutes of the meeting between UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan and President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Monday, July 9.
Jean Aziz is a Lebanese socio-political activist, journalist, university professor and talk show host. He is now close to Michel Aoun, Christian leader of Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement and a maverick ally of both Syria and Hezbollah.
Here is what I believe was passed on to Aziz by Damascus:
The meeting between President Assad and UN Special Envoy Annan lasted an hour and a half.
The atmosphere was relaxed. There was no mention of the UN mission’s failure or of the tough talk by the (July 6 “Friends of Syria”) conference in Paris. Both sides spoke of the situation on the ground “in order to put in place a specific mechanism for a ceasefire” and of the coveted political dialogue between the Syrian government and its opponents.
The meeting between President Assad and Special Envoy Annan, both renowned to be courteous was in the presence of Gen. Robert Mood, head of UNSMIS, and Martin Griffith, head of the UN mission in Syria.
Annan started the conversation by saying he had been following the Syrian president’s recent interviews with the German TV network (ARD) and Turkey’s Gumhuriyet daily, remarking: “It seems, Mr. President, you’ve been increasing your media exposure of late.”
Assad replied with a smile on his face: “That’s true. The reason is twofold. One, I am the type of person who prefers to act then talk. Two, I noticed lately there is an almost total blackout on the facts and a good deal of manipulation and distortion of realities and events. That’s why I thought it was my duty to speak up.”
Annan grasped the hint and said he was aware of the difference between happenings on the ground and fictional scenarios and concocted impressions being broadcast.
Annan then started his official presentation, saying: “Mr. President, I thought it was my duty after the (June 30 “Action Group on Syria”) conference we held in Geneva, and in the countdown to my July 20-21 briefing of the UN Security Council, to meet with you and update you on what we did and what we need to follow through.”
It was obvious from his opening sentence that Annan did not want to mention the Paris conference from far or near. No did he wish to dwell on the post-Paris hype.
Annan went further, seizing the opportunity to reiterate his and the UN’s adherence to his six-point plan. He explicitly told his presidential host the Geneva conference declaration did no more than endorse his six-point initiative, adding: “I am sure you know, Mr. President, that what actually took place in Geneva does not tally with the ensuing interpretations and explanations that sought to distort and expound on what was approved at the conference.”
The implication is that Annan was fully endorsing the post-Geneva Russian stand vis-à-vis the Western allies’ position.
Annan then moved on to talk about conditions on the ground in Syria and about the UN observer mission, dwelling on the tragic situation in some areas and thus the urgency of implementing his initiative’s key point – namely, the cessation of violence.
Assad was considerate and totally receptive, offering a brief recap of his guest’s mission since it went into force on April 12. He recounted how the (government’s) armed forces complied with the ceasefire for 24 hours until the insurgents, as attested in the UN observers’ reports, breached it.
During Assad’s recap, Gen. Mood was seen nodding his head approvingly more than once.
Annan took stock of Assad’s words, saying there was every reason to renew the drive for a ceasefire – particularly that the explosive situation in Syria risked spilling over to other countries. He specifically mentioned a likely spillover to Lebanon.
“So let’s try again, let’s agree a mechanism for a ceasefire starting with any one of the (Syrian) hotspots. We can then duplicate it in another,” Annan suggested.
Once again, Assad proved fully amenable before asking his guests: “We are a state, government and official authority, which means when we give you our word on a ceasefire we become accountable to you. But who will you be negotiating with on the other side?”
At this point, Annan began answering together with Gen. Mood.
The pair explained that UN observers were able in the course of their mission to make a semi-comprehensive appraisal of the armed groups.
Annan and Mood said, “We at least got to know the major groups. We got to know their chiefs. True, they don’t have a unified command or a clear command structure. Their armed chaos is massive. But we got to know their key figures. That’s why we believe we can work and proceed with them step by step.”
Again, it was clear both men now describe regime opponents as “the armed opposition.”
Annan was reminded at this point how armed insurgents foiled earlier ceasefire attempts, chiefly in Homs.
“Not long ago,” Annan was told, “ your observers witnessed how some armed elements tried leaving Homs’ al-Khalidiya neighborhood to hand in their weapons and surrender. Other rebels stopped them from this. Your observers also saw first-hand how armed insurgents frustrated attempts to evacuate some citizens trapped in Homs’ Dayyan and Hamidiya neighborhoods.”
Griffith corroborated this as an eyewitness himself.
The UN delegates did not dispute their host’s remarks. But Annan went on to state: “Nevertheless, the situation being what it is, let’s try again. Our observers would reach an agreement with the armed groups in the area where we choose to start. At the same time, we would ask for a goodwill gesture on your part in the chosen area. The gesture would see you observe a unilateral ceasefire in the designated area, of say four hours, pending the mutual ceasefire’s entry into force.”
Here, Annan was reminded that the ceasefire provision in his six-point plan was contingent on the cessation of the funding of, and smuggling of arms to, the opposition.
The UN envoy listened carefully for a few seconds until he was asked bluntly: “What do you think of U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s talks two days ago about the prospects of a ‘catastrophic assault’ on government forces by the armed groups? Is that consistent with your (troubleshooting) mission?”
Annan paused for a few seconds before replying, “No, of course not. This is dangerous talk. But let’s try, let’s try applying this (phased ceasefire) approach step by step.”
As regards a timetable for this process, both sides exchanged various proposals and views before settling on a three-month timeline to see it through, beginning with the execution of the first step. Concomitantly, the two sides would issue a joint progress report every fortnight.
Annan then moved on to the matter of political dialogue between the government and the opposition in a tone vacillating between realism and skepticism.
The UN envoy asked Assad, “Should we make progress on the security front, would you be able to name your representative for the negotiations with the opposition – a sort of liaison officer to see through the second chapter of the UN mission?”
Dr. Ali Haidar
Assad smiled and replied instantaneously: “Before you even asked, and since formation of the current government, we decided on the person to be in charge of this matter. He is our minister of state for national reconciliation affairs, Dr. Ali Haidar.”
When Annan wanted to know more about Dr. Haidar, Assad explained the reasons for his selection, saying: “One, because he is not from the loyalist camp. Two, he is effectively from the opposition and heads a credible opposition party. Three, he was injured during the events and his son was killed by armed rebels. But he was able to overcome all this and accept the job of working for a genuine national reconciliation.”
Annan remarked, “But we would have preferred the nomination of someone closer to you -- someone who would be in direct contact with you to bring the dialogue process to completion.”
Assad smiled again, telling Annan: “Dr. Haidar and I shared adjoining desks throughout my university years specializing in ophthalmology. Do you want someone closer than that? Anyway, I think your greater difficulty will be on the other side, not on ours. Will you be able to get a name to represent the opposition?”
Annan couldn’t help chuckling before saying, “I am certainly aware of the difficulty. I saw them (the opposition groups) at their last conference in Cairo.”
The official meeting ended there. But while preparing to take leave, Annan asked his host, “How long you think can this crisis last?”
Assad: “So long as (…) funds them” -- (a possible reference to Qatar).
Annan was not taken aback by Assad’s answer but wondered: “You think they’re doing all the funding?”
Assad: “They’re doing a lot of things in the region. They believe they can lead the Arab world now and in future.”
Annan quipped, “But it seems they lack the number of citizens to do that.”