HAMMAMET, Tunisia – Senior Arab officials pressed China on Thursday to use its influence to help stop the violence in Syria.
China, along with Russia, has blocked efforts to take more robust action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the United Nations Security Council, but pressure for a firm response has grown since the massacre last week of over 100 people in the town of Houla.
“We greatly respect the efforts of China to find a solution in Syria,” Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah said on the sidelines of an Arab-China cooperation forum in the Tunisian town of Hammamet.
“But we hope it will redouble this effort to stop the machine of violence and death and to put more pressure on the Syrian government to respect its commitments under the Annan plan,” he said, referring to a peace plan proposed by U.N.-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan.
The forum in Hammamet, a resort on the Mediterranean coast, was attended by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and Arab delegates used the opportunity to lobby him over Syria.
In a speech, he made no reference to Syria. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing deflected calls for firmer action by saying Annan’s mediation efforts should be given more time to work.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a former political prisoner swept to power in last year’s “Arab Spring” revolution, said inaction could lead eventually to foreign military intervention in Syria, something which Russia and China oppose.
“China could play a decisive role in halting the suffering of the Syrian people and closing off the option of military intervention, by pushing for a scenario similar to the one in Yemen,” Marzouki said in a speech to the forum.
Like Syria, Yemen saw a wave of protests inspired by the “Arab Spring.” A negotiated solution was found under which President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for 33 years, stepped down in February.
The massacre in Houla of 108 people, including women and children, caused widespread outrage. Western states expelled senior Syrian diplomats, but any decisive response through the U.N. is still stymied by the Russia and Chinese vetoes.
U.N. peacekeepers said the Syrian army and militiamen supporting Assad were probably responsible for killing the victims in Houla with artillery and tank fire, guns and knives.
The government denied any responsibility and blamed Islamist “terrorists” – its term for rebel forces.
At Thursday’s forum in Tunisia, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby urged all sides to implement the Annan peace plan, which envisages a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from towns and cities, and talks on a political transition.
“We insist that the violence and massacres stop immediately,” Elaraby said. “We hope that all parties will help Annan’s efforts.”