Arab leaders dropped a demand that Bashar Assad give up the presidency of Syria but urged him to act quickly on a U.N.-backed peace plan he has accepted as fighting between Syrian troops and rebels killed at least 22 people on Thursday.
“The solution for the crisis is still in the hands of the Syrians as a government and opposition,” Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told Arab heads of state at a summit meeting in Baghdad.
Syria’s opposition groups continue to demand that Assad must go and have not agreed to peace talks.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon kept up pressure on Assad, saying he must turn his acceptance of the six-point peace plan into action, to shift his country off a “dangerous trajectory” with risks for the entire region.
“It is essential that President Assad put those commitments into immediate effect. The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action. The key here is implementation, there is no time to waste,” Ban told the Arab League Summit.
In Istanbul, Syrian opposition representatives met to try to settle deep internal disputes before the arrival of Western foreign ministers for a “Friends of Syria” conference on Sunday to map out where the year-old uprising is heading.
The chances of Western powers deciding to arm the insurgents at this point appeared to be very remote.
BATTLES AND AMBUSHES
Reports from the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence, said at least 16 people and six government soldiers were killed across the country - in army raids on villages, in a rebel ambush and in clashes.
The state news agency SANA said two colonels were assassinated in a morning attack in Aleppo, Syria’s second city, while on their way to work. It said gunmen kidnapped Air Force General Mohammad Amr al Darbas in Damascus province.
The United Nations says Assad’s forces have killed 9,000 people. Damascus blames foreign-backed “terrorists” for the violence and says 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.
Western powers have expressed skepticism about Assad’s acceptance of the peace plan. Russia has urged Western-backed opposition groups to match Damascus and endorse the proposals of Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general who is now special Syria envoy for the U.N. and the Arab League.
Syria’s big-power backers, Russia and China, have turned up the heat on Assad by endorsing the Annan plan, with the unspoken implication that if he fails to act on it, they may be prepared to back action by the U.N. Security Council.
ARAB VIEWS DIFFER
Sunni Muslim powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led the campaign to isolate Syria, suggesting arming Syria’s mainly Sunni opposition.
Arab states outside the Gulf, such as Algeria and Shi’ite Muslim-led Iraq, urge more caution, fearing that toppling Assad - a member of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shi’ite Islam - could spark sectarian violence.
Annan’s six-point plan calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centers, humanitarian assistance, the release of prisoners and free movement and access for journalists.
Diplomats say one of his ideas is for a U.N. observer mission to monitor any eventual ceasefire, a mechanism likely to require a U.N. Security Council mandate. An Arab League monitoring mission late last year failed to make any difference to the crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed for Saudi Arabia and later Turkey to consult Gulf states and promote unity in Syrian opposition ranks, but there was no sign that President Barack Obama was about to drop his hands-off approach.
Unless opposition splits are healed, there is little chance that Assad’s opponents can oust him without a military intervention the West clearly does not want, and some analysts are saying it is time to force the opposition to talk to Assad.
The Obama administration’s approach to the crisis will continue to be “wary and slow-moving”, said Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution.
“If Assad has reached a turning point and really made headway against insurgents, I believe there is a good chance he will ‘win’ without too much American pushback,” O’Hanlon said.