03/28/2012 01:00 pm ET Updated May 28, 2012

Syria Crisis: Arab League Backs Kofi Annan Peace Plan

By Mariam Karouny

BAGHDAD, March 28 (Reuters) - Arab foreign ministers called on Wednesday for a U.N.-backed peace plan for Syria to be put into action after President Bashar al-Assad agreed to the proposal, which urges an end to violence but does not demand the Syrian leader step down.

Arab ministers meeting in Baghdad for an Arab League summit on Thursday endorsed the six-point proposal of U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, which seeks a ceasefire and political dialogue that Iraq called a "last chance" for Syria to resolve the crisis without greater bloodshed.

Syria accepted Annan's proposal, the latest effort to broker an end to more than a year of fighting, but on Wednesday Damascus rejected any initiatives taken by the summit and said it would deal only with individual Arab states, as the League had suspended Syria because of its internal violence.

"We cannot be impartial on this matter of daily violence, killing and bloodletting," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told reporters at end of the summit's second day.

"The international resolution, which Syria has approved, we believe it's a positive and constructive step... But it needs implementation," he said.

Arab states, split over how to deal with a crisis in Syria that threatens to inflame the region's sectarian faultlines, appear to have backed away from their initial proposal that Assad step aside to allow his deputy to organize talks.

Annan's proposal calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centres, humanitarian assistance, the release of prisoners and free movement and access for journalists. It does not hinge on Assad leaving office.

Zebari said the League would not accept foreign intervention in Syria.

Sunni powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led the push to isolate Syria, but non-Gulf Arab states such as Algeria, Egypt and Shi'ite-led Iraq urge more caution, fearing that toppling Assad could spark sectarian violence.

"The priority is to end the violence in Syria," United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Qarqash said in Baghdad. "We support Annan's proposal."

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the League would try to agree on how to implement the Annan plan, including possible talks with Assad's opponents, but gave no details.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was to go to Baghdad and the Arab League summit is due to take place there on Thursday.

"I am going to meet with key leaders in Baghdad and discuss with them how the United Nations and League of Arab States can work together in helping (the) joint special envoy's diplomatic efforts," he said in Kuwait before travelling to Iraq.


Iraq is holding its first Arab League summit in two decades and it will be the first such meeting hosted by a Shi'ite Arab leader, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Baghdad hopes a successful summit will crown its return to the Arab body after years of internal conflict following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

In the build-up to the summit, Baghdad courted Sunni Arab Gulf countries who have been wary of the rise of Iraq's Shi'ite majority and of its closer ties with Iran since the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

The Syrian crisis highlights sectarian rifts in the Middle East, where Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Arab Gulf rivals jockey for influence. Syria, whose ruling elite belongs to the minority Alawite sect, a Shi'ite offshoot, is Tehran's key ally in the region.

Syrian government forces again fired heavy weapons in their siege of opposition strongholds on Wednesday, and shelling and other military action were eported from the southern province of Deraa to the northern Hama region.

The United Nations says Syrian government forces have killed more than 9,000 civilians in the upheaval, while Syrian authorities blame foreign-backed terrorists for the violence and say 3,000 troops and police have been killed.

"We hope the Syrian brothers will respond to the Arab and international resolutions. We hope they will respond to the voice of reason and stop the bloodshed," said Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah.

"The situation now makes a ceasefire necessary."

Annan said on Tuesday that Syria had accepted his proposal but acknowledged that resolving the crisis would be a "long, difficult task."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greeted Syria's decision sceptically, saying Washington would judge Assad on his actions, not his words.

Western and Arab leaders will meet in Istanbul on April 1 to discuss Syrian transition, and U.S., Turkish and Arab officials are pushing the divided Syrian opposition to unite, though it has yet to agree on how to form a post-Assad government.

Western and Arab governments may be keen to see the end of the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for 42 years,but they are worried about what kind of government might replace him.

Russia and China have so far shielded Assad from United Nations Security Council condemnation by vetoing Western-backed resolutions over the bloodshed. But they have backed the U.N. statement endorsing Annan's mission. *(Additional reporting by writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Tim Pearce)