ISTANBUL -- Syrian President Bashar Assad, attempting to seize the initiative after taking a clobbering in international forums over the conflict in his country, has named a member of his Cabinet as a negotiator in U.N.-sponsored talks to set up a transitional government to succeed his dictatorship.
The proposal for Ali Haidar, his minister of reconciliation, to take up the position came as an apparent surprise to Kofi Annan, the U.N. special envoy, who met Assad on Monday, according to a leaked account of the meeting published this week by a Beirut daily newspaper. Annan hadn’t asked Assad to name a mediator, however, and the move also could have been an effort to draw a contrast with the chaotic opposition, which is made up of disparate groups that lack a central leadership.
Annan was pleading for a halt in violence, which only escalated Thursday with reported shelling in the capital, Damascus, for the first time since the uprising began 16 months ago, and gruesome TV footage accompanying opposition reports that Syrian forces had massacred more than 100 people in a village in the hard-hit Hama province. Arabic-language news reports, using activist-provided footage and witness accounts, said dozens of residents in the village of Tremseh were shelled, then stormed by pro-Assad militiamen who executed the survivors.
State media, meanwhile, reported that two soldiers were killed by “terrorists,” the regime’s term for the armed rebels.
The regime faced another embarrassing defection with the flight of Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, who the White House confirmed Thursday had left the government and joined the opposition. Fares’ defection comes less than a week after Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, an Assad confidant, broke with the regime and fled Syria. Previous military defections had been by lower-ranking officers.
“We are seeing daily now more and more indications that Assad is losing his grip, that those around him, both in his inner circle and more broadly in the military and governmental leadership, are beginning to assess Assad’s chances of remaining in power,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
Despite the higher-level defections and ever louder chorus of international condemnation, Assad appears to think that he’s still stable enough to handpick a successor, judging from the purported transcript of his meeting with Annan. The Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar printed the account in its Thursday editions.
Assad told Annan that his choice of steward, Haidar, had trained with him as an ophthalmologist and wasn’t a member of his inner circle, but also wasn’t a part of the opposition. He’d lost a son to rebel forces.
The United States, Russia, China, the European Union and the Arab League agreed to the plan June 30 in talks with Syria not in attendance, but Annan hadn’t expected to push for the naming of envoys until after violence had abated, according to his spokesman.
Annan’s reaction to Assad’s proposal was, “Let me think about it,” spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told McClatchy. He said Annan would vet Haidar and then ask top representatives of the Syrian opposition for their agreement.
“He has to be acceptable to the opposition,” Fawzi said.
Menhal Barish, a senior official with the Syrian National Council, a leading opposition body, said Thursday that Haidar was “not so bad a man” and that “his hands aren’t dirty with blood.” But he rejected giving Haidar a key role in the transition.