Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has issued a decree stating that parliamentary elections will be held on May 7, even as Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, awaited a response from Damascus on “concrete proposals” he put forward to end the conflict raging in the country.
Assad’s move on Tuesday was part of a raft of reforms that he had unveiled to calm a year-long uprising against his rule. His reforms have, however, failed to quell the anti-government protests and not eased in any way the mounting pressure on him to quit.
It was unclear whether parliamentary elections were also part of the six-point peace plan presented by Annan during his recent visit to the country.
The former UN chief was in the Turkish capital Ankara on Tuesday, where he met a delegation from the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) .
“I am expecting to hear from Syrian authorities today since I left some concrete proposals for them to consider,” Annan told reporters after the meeting. “Once I receive their answer we will know how to react.”
Annan arrived in Turkey on Monday after negotiations in Damascus over the weekend aimed at ending the escalating violence that activists say has killed more than 8,500 people in a year.
Annan, who met Assad, has not disclosed what those proposals entailed.
“Let me say that the killings and the violence must cease,” Annan told reporters. “The Syrian people have gone through a lot and they deserve better,” he said.
The envoy said he had had a “useful meeting” with Syrian opposition members who “promised their full co-operation which will be necessary if we are going to succeed”.
Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the SNC, said the aim of talks was to find a political and diplomatic solution in Syria, otherwise foreign governments would deliver on promises to supply weapons to rebel forces in the country.
The latest diplomatic development came as Syrian troops pressed an assault on rebel strongholds in the Turkish border region on Tuesday.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian forces used heavy machine guns to rake the town of El-Baraa in Jabal al-Zawiya region, an opposition bastion in northwestern Idlib province.
The Observatory said armed fighters hit back before dawn with an attack on a military checkpoint in the town of Maaret al-Numan in which at least 10 Syrian soldiers were killed.
In Khan Sheikhun, another opposition bastion in Idlib, fighters attacked troops in heavy military vehicles, damaging two of them and seizing others, the Observatory said.
It also reported clashes in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, in Aleppo in the north, and in Daraa in the south.
The army has since March 9 mounted an offensive in the mountainous region near the Turkish border in a bid to seize control of the city of Idlib, which bears the same name as the province, and other towns where the opposition fighters are based.
Dozens of people have been killed since last week by army shelling of Idlib city, which is now partly controlled by the government, and in violence across the province.
Amid the reports of violence, the UN on Tuesday said that it would soon deploy human rights monitors in countries bordering Syria to collect witness testimony on “atrocities” committed in the country.
“We will be sending monitors for documentation of atrocities in bordering countries later this week,” Kyung-wha Kang, Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the UN Human Rights Council during a debate on the crisis in Syria.
Russia’s military co-operation
Russia, meanwhile, said it would press Syria to accept international monitors who could observe the implementation of a “simultaneous” ceasefire between government troops and the armed opposition fighters.
“The objective is for both sides to understand that there is an independent observer watching how they meet demands – and we are definitely going to be making such demands – for an immediate ceasefire,” Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, told reporters on Tuesday.
“This must be simultaneous. We must not have a situation in which the government is required the leave the cities and villages while the armed groups are not made to do the same.
“This is unrealistic not because we want the bloodshed to continue, but because the unilateral withdrawal of government forces is completely unrealistic.
“The Syrian authorities will not go for that, whether we like it or not,” Lavrov said.
Ahead of Lavrov’s comments, a senior Russian government official said Moscow saw no reason for curtailing its military co-operation with Damascus despite calls from Western powers to stop arming Assad’s government.
Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s deputy defence minister, said his country would abide by existing contracts to deliver weapons to Syria.
He told reporters that Russia enjoyed “good, strong military technical co-operation with Syria, and we see no reason to reconsider it”.
Russia and China have twice used their power as permanent members of the UN Security Council to veto resolutions on Syria.
On Monday, at a UN Security Council ministerial meeting, Western governments stepped up pressure on Moscow and Beijing to end their blockage of action over the Syrian government’s assault on protest cities.
Russia, however, showed little sign that it would change its stance, with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, condemning “risky recipes” which he said could increase conflict in the Middle East.
Since the outbreak of violence in Syria last year, 230,000 people have fled their homes, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ co-ordinator for Syria said 30,000 people had already fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and “on a daily basis hundreds of people are still crossing into neighboring countries”.
Panos Moumtzis told reporters in Geneva that according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent at least 200,000 people were also displaced within the country.