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Annan floats new idea to rescue failing Syria peace plan

U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan pauses during a photo opportunity at the start of a meeting with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva June 5, 2012.


International mediator Kofi Annan will present the UN Security Council with a new proposal to rescue his failing peace plan for Syria, where 15 months of violence have brought the country to the brink of civil war, UN diplomats said on Wednesday.

Mr. Annan's proposal for the creation of a "contact group" of world and regional powers comes as the Syrian opposition and Western and Gulf nations seeking the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad increasingly see Mr. Annan's six-point peace plan as doomed due to the Syrian government's determination to use military force to crush an increasingly militarized opposition.

Mr. Annan will float his proposal during a special session of the 15-nation council on Syria on Thursday, diplomats said on condition of anonymity. The former UN secretary-general hopes his new idea can prevent a total collapse of his earlier plan for a truce and negotiated political solution, they said.

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The core of the proposal, diplomats said, would be the establishment of a contact group that would bring together Russia, China, the United States, Britain, France and key regional players with influence on Syria's government or the opposition, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran.

By creating such a contact group, envoys said, Mr. Annan would also be trying to break the deadlock among the five permanent council members that has pitted veto powers Russia and China against the United States, Britain and France and prevented any meaningful UN action on the Syrian conflict, envoys said.

It would attempt to map out a "political transition" for Syria that would lead to Mr. al-Assad stepping aside and the holding of free elections, envoys said. One envoy said the idea was "vaguely similar" to a political transition deal for Yemen that led to the president's ouster.

The main point of Mr. Annan's proposal, they said, is to get Russia to commit to the idea of a Syrian political transition, which remains the thrust of Mr. Annan's six-point peace plan that both the Syrian government and opposition said they accepted earlier this year, but have failed to implement.

While Russia has repeatedly said it is not protecting Mr. al-Assad, it has given no indications that it is ready to abandon him. Mr. al-Assad has proven to be a staunch Russian ally and remains a top purchaser of weapons from Russian firms, and diplomats say Moscow continues to reward him for his loyalty.

"The thought is one that we've had for a little while, which is that you need to bind Russia into some sort of transition strategy on Syria," a senior Western diplomat said.

"That's what we've been working on over the last few weeks," he said, referring to a series of recent meetings between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with their European and U.S. counterparts.

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An unnamed diplomat leaked further details of Mr. Annan's proposal to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who said that if the contact group agreed on a transition deal for Syria, it would mean "Assad would presumably depart for Russia, which is said to have offered him exile."

It was not immediately clear if the idea of Russian exile for Mr. al-Assad was something Mr. Annan was pushing or if it was Mr. Ignatius' speculation. The Post article said that another option for Mr. al-Assad would be to seek exile in Iran, Damascus' other staunch ally.

Mr. Annan's peace efforts have failed to halt the violence, as demonstrated by a recent massacre in Houla that led to the deaths of at least 108 men, women and children, most likely by the army and allied militia, according the UN. But some envoys said it was too early to declare Mr. Annan's peace plan dead.

"It may be on life support, but it's not dead," the senior diplomat said about the peace plan.

In what could be the first step toward the creation of Mr. Annan's contact group, Russia's Mr. Lavrov on Wednesday floated the idea of an international meeting on the Syrian crisis that would bring together the prime candidates for Mr. Annan's proposed contact group, including Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, reacted coolly to the idea of including Iran, which she said was "stage-managing" the Syrian government assault on the opposition that the United Nations says killed at least 10,000 people.

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It is unclear whether such a grouping would be able to agree on a plan for Syria, envoys said. In addition to the United States, the Saudis would have trouble working with the Iranians.

"We are very far from being ready to create a workable contact group along these lines," another senior diplomat said. "But let's see how Annan words it in his proposal tomorrow."

Before he addresses the Security Council on Thursday, Mr. Annan will speak to the 193-nation UN General Assembly, along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby.

Separately, envoys said it was unclear if the council will agree to extend the 90-day mandate of the 300-strong unarmed UN observer mission in Syria, which is increasingly at risk of attack. Its mandate expires in late July.

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