U.N. envoy Annan meets with Assad in Syria

Kofi Annan, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, right, leaves Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus Saturday on way to presidential palace for meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad
AP Photo/ Bassem Tellawi

Last Updated 9:16 a.m. ET

(CBS/AP) BEIRUT — U.N. envoy Kofi Annan met with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday in Damascus during a high-profile international mission to mediate an end to the country's yearlong conflict, even as activists reported fresh shelling by regime forces that sent families fleeing for safety in the northern province of Idlib, one of the centers of the uprising against Assad's rule. Thick black smoke billowed over the area.

The state-run news agency SANA reported that talks between Assad and Annan had begun but there were no further details on the meeting, aimed at a halting violence that began with crackdowns on mostly peaceful protests but appears to be transforming into a civil war.

Annan has said he favors a political solution to this crisis, but he does not believe that further militarizing the conflict is the answer. That means that many people within the opposition feel that this is just more talking, that the time for talking is long past and they don't have high expectations from this visit, reports CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward.

Annan is expected to ask for an immediate cease-fire, an end to the violence when he meets with regime officials today; he'll also be meeting with members of the opposition tomorrow.

But the mission was already hitting dead ends. Assad told Annan that any political dialogue was doomed to fail "as long as there are armed terrorist groups that work to spread anarchy and destabilize the country," according to the state news agency SANA. The regime blames terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy for the uprising, not protesters seeking change.

Following a second closed-door meeting with Annan, a statement from the president's office said that the U.N. envoy had "confirmed his commitment to work in a fair, neutral and independent way and his rejection to any external intervention in the Syrian affairs and his belief in a peaceful solution," reports CBS News' George Baghdadi in Damascus.

The statement also reiterated the government's contention that "armed terrorist groups" were spreading chaos and destabilizing the country "through targeting civilians and destroying public and private properties."

The high-profile visit hasn't dimmed the strife: Ward reports that in the 24 hours leading up to Annan's meeting, there has been continued violence across the country. Activists said at least 76 people were killed yesterday, and there was continued shelling in the city of Homs.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that the government was shelling the Idlib region after tanks moved toward the area in recent days. There was no independent confirmation, but smoke rose into the sky behind some apartment buildings, according to an Associated Press team in the area.

Some families were seen fleeing the violence, clutching their belongings, or taking shelter.

Military reinforcements have been pouring into Idlib for days, including dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers, activists said. There have been concerns Idlib would be the focus of an offensive following the government recapture of the rebel-held district of Baba Amr in Homs after a bloody, month-long siege.

But the latest diplomatic mission to end the Syrian crisis stumbled even before it began, as the opposition rejected Annan's calls for dialogue with Assad's regime Friday as pointless and out of touch after a year of bloodshed.

The dispute exposes the widening gap between opposition leaders, who say only military aid can stop President Bashar Assad's regime, and Western powers, who fear more weapons will exacerbate the conflict.

On "CBS This Morning: Saturday," Ward said that it does not seem, at this stage, that President Assad is losing his grip on power, primarily because he continues to have the support of the military.

Meanwhile, the economic situation in Syria continues to grow more and more dire. "Food prices have literally doubled; there are serious fuel sources,' said Ward. "But of course in his climate and with the violence the way it is on the streets, I don't think we can expect to see people out protesting about the economic situation any time soon."

Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday his government isn't "protecting any regimes," defending his country's stance to Arab leaders angry over Moscow's blocking of international pressure on Assad to step down. Lavrov spoke in Cairo at a heated meeting of the Arab League as Annan met with Assad.

At the same Cairo gathering, Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, said Syria's opposition should be recognized as Syria's legitimate representative, according to Reuters. Qatar has been leading efforts to isolate Assad.

The gathering at the Arab League with Lavrov was tense. Russia, a longtime ally of Assad, has come under intense international criticism for vetoing a draft U.N. resolution last month that would have pressured Assad to step down — casting its vote even as the regime's troops blasted the city of Homs in one of the bloodiest offensives yet in the year-long crackdown on the uprising. That brought accusations that Russia — and China, which also cast a veto — were giving Assad diplomatic cover to intensify his crackdown.

Annan's visit to Damascus marks a new international push for peace nearly a year after protesters took to the streets to demand Assad's ouster, inspired by Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Since then, the regime has dispatched snipers, tanks and civilian gunmen to crush dissent. As the death toll mounted, protests have spread, and some have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government forces.

The conflict is now one of the bloodiest of the Arab Spring, with the U.N. saying more than 7,500 people have been killed. Activists put the number at more than 8,000.

So far, Western powers have declined to intervene. Unlike Libya, where a U.N.-sanctioned bombing campaign helped rebels topple Muammar Qaddafi last year, Syria has key allies in Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and shares a border with the region's closest American ally, Israel. Outright war in Syria could spark a regional conflagration.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Friday that Annan's priority is to immediately halt all fighting by government forces and opposition fighters — if not simultaneously, then first by government troops, followed by the opposition.

Ban said a cease-fire should be quickly followed by inclusive political talks to resolve the yearlong conflict.

Diplomats say this could prove difficult, because opposition leaders have already rejected calls for dialogue, saying only more military aid can stop Assad's deadly crackdown.

By phone from Paris, the head of the opposition Syrian National Council told The Associated Press on Friday that Annan was overlooking what the opposition considers the root of the problem: the regime's use of overwhelming military force to crush dissent.

"Any political solution will not succeed if it is not accompanied by military pressure on the regime," said Burhan Ghalioun. "As an international envoy, we hope (Annan) will have a mechanism for ending the violence."

The Syrian National Council has called for foreign military intervention, believing it is the only way to stop Assad's tanks and soldiers from firing on civilian areas. It recently formed a military office to try to coordinate efforts to bring in military aid for armed groups across the country who fight under the name of the Free Syrian Army.

Ghalioun said he worried Annan's trip would stall more effective steps to stop the violence.

Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, was appointed last month as the joint special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League.