'Audacious steps' needed in Syria, Arab diplomats say

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Story highlights

  • Top U.S., Russian diplomats discuss Syria, a U.S. State Department official says
  • 33 civilians and 61 government forces are killed, an opposition group reports
  • The head of the Arab League calls for a peace plan timeline and "more audacious steps"
  • U.N. envoy Annan criticizes Syria for blocking entry to his Arab League affiliated deputy

As a U.N.-backed peace initiative founders in Syria, Arab leaders signaled the need Saturday for more robust measures to end the violence there.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani said envoy Kofi Annan's peace initiative should be placed under Chapter VII of the U.N. charter, Qatar's news agency reported. Such a move would allow the U.N. Security Council to take action that can include the use of military force.

He spoke before Arab League foreign ministers in the Qatari capital of Doha. Meeting a week after a massacre in the city of Houla sparked global outrage, they discussed ways to keep the conflict from deteriorating into a full-fledged civil war.

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Al Thani said President Bashar al-Assad's regime has failed to implement the first part of U.N.-Arab League envoy Annan's six-point plan, an apparent reference to the proposed April 12 cease-fire, and has ignored the rest.

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"We cannot accept the situation to continue as it is while the task of Kofi Annan going on," he said, according to the news agency. "We, in the Arab League, are ready to shoulder our responsibilities and search for solutions to means of peaceful transition in Syria if there is seriousness by the regime there.''

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    That sentiment was echoed by Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby, who said "more audacious steps are needed" in Syria.

    "We should have a timeline for the peace plan -- this is a must," el-Araby said. "The international community needs to take immediate action after the massacre in Houla and take all necessary measures in order to protect the Syrian civilians."

    Burhan Ghalioun, outgoing president of the opposition Syrian National Council, said the regime doesn't want a "political resolution" -- despite the groundwork laid by Annan and the Arab League in recent months.

    "The regime still have these dreams to restore its iron fist all over the country and to try the opposition, the entire Syrian people as terrorists and outlaws," Ghalioun said.

    "This regime will not leave unless they are forced to. There are no people in the world who are willing to remain enslaved subjects under the constant shelling."

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    The crisis in Syria began nearly 15 months ago, when a tough government crackdown on protesters spiraled out of control and spawned a national anti-government uprising. The United Nations for months has said more than 9,000 people have died in Syria. But death counts from opposition groups range from more than 12,000 to more than 14,000. Tens of thousands have been displaced.

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    The opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said at least 29 people died Saturday. Another opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that 33 civilians were killed over the course of the day -- including 14 in Homs and 11 in Idlib -- while 61 government forces and two now-rebel soldiers died.

    CNN cannot independently confirm death tolls or reports of violence from Syria because the government limits access to the country by foreign journalists.

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    Over the border in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, fighting between pro- and anti-Syrian regime gunmen on Saturday left 12 dead and approximately 50 injured, according to the state-run National News Agency.

    After meeting with leaders from the different factions involved in the clashes, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel announced that national security forces will enter the area to enforce a cease-fire set to begin at 5 a.m. Sunday, the report said.

    The sectarian violence in Tripoli mirrors the tensions in Syria between Sunnis, who make up the majority of the Syrian opposition, and Alawites, who are dominant in al-Assad's government.

    Annan made reference Saturday to such flare-ups in neighboring countries, after many Syrian civilians have fled over the border to escape violence.

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    Still, such incidents pale in comparison to what's happening within Syria. Annan told Arab League ministers the crisis is "at a turning point" and that "the specter of all-out civil war with a worry sectarian dimension grows by the day."

    Despite many challenges, Annan said the U.N. mission and attempts to implement his six-point plan continue. At present, there are 291 U.N. military observers and more than 90 U.N. civilians on the ground in Syria.

    "It is not the job of the monitors to stop the violence -- that is for the protagonists. But if they have the will to stop the fighting, the monitors can help them implement the commitments they make to each other and the international community. This would promote peace and stability and the conditions for a political process," he said.

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    Annan said he recently urged al-Assad "to radically change his military posture," saying the government has the prime responsibility to halt the violence.

    He also criticized Syria for blocking his deputy Nasser al-Kidwa, appointed by the United Nations and the Arab League, from entering the country.

    Syria did so because it recognizes Annan only as a U.N. representative and doesn't want to engage the Arab League. The Damascus regime regards the league, which suspended Syria from its ranks because of the violence, as hostile.

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    Annan said the move to block al-Kidwa is "not acceptable and not wise."

    "My mandate is clear. I am the joint U.N. and Arab League envoy. The Arab League should be part of any future resolution in Syria," he said.

    Annan said he plans to brief the U.N. General Assembly and U.N. Security Council about the crisis on Thursday.

    As for Houla, Annan called it a "terrible crime," but said it is one of "many atrocities" in Syria.

    Russia and China have opposed several U.N. efforts to address the situation, including some implicating and targeting al-Assad and his government. In recent days, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of providing arms to and "propping up (Syria's) regime," prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to fire back denying any such military sales or that his government was taking sides.

    Clinton spoke Saturday with her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, telling him, "We've got to start working together to help the Syrians with Syria's political transition strategy," a senior U.S. State Department official said.

    Despite objections from Russia and China, the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday authorized the U.N.'s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria -- which has issued ongoing reports about violence in the country -- to conduct a robust probe into the massacre last week that left 108 people dead, including 49 children.

    Opposition activists and residents have said pro-regime forces went house to house, lining up residents and shooting them.

    Syria's representative to the Human Rights Council, Faisal al-Hamwi, said he thinks the "terrorists" are linked to groups "whose main motive was to ignite sectarian sedition in a region with a multi-community social fabric," the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reports.

    Sectarian tensions have been high in Houla, which is overwhelmingly Sunni and is surrounded by Alawite and Shiite villages. Most people in Syria are Sunni Muslims, though al-Assad and many leaders in his government are Alawite and Shiite.