BEIRUT -- United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan met Tuesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad in what was widely viewed as a last-ditch bid to salvage a faltering U.N.-brokered peace plan that has plainly failed to stem the violence gripping Syria.
Annan arrived Monday in Damascus, the Syrian capital, and called on Assad's embattled government to take "bold steps" to help end the more than yearlong crisis, which has cost at least 9,000 lives.
His visit comes in the aftermath of one of the ongoing rebellion's grisliest chapters -- the massacre of more than 100 civilians, mostly women and children, in the central township of Houla. The incident has drawn international revulsion, but as is the case with other violent episodes in Syria, the question of who is responsible remains in dispute.
The government and the opposition have blamed each other for the Houla killings, which are said to include the summary execution of entire families. The U.N. says it is investigating to determine who committed the atrocities.
In a statement after the meeting, Annan's spokesman said that the U.N. envoy conveyed to the Syrian president the "grave concern of the international community about the violence in Syria." Annan stressed the need for "full implementation" of the six-point peace plan, the spokesman said.
The former U.N. secretary-general is pushing for compliance with a six-point peace plan that, among other mandates, calls for the Syrian government to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from populated areas.
The government is extremely reluctant to pull back its considerable firepower. Such a retreat would go against the regime's strategy of not allowing long-term rebel occupation of any territory inside Syria. A pullback could open the door for opposition forces to exert control over many areas where residents are clearly sympathetic to the uprising.
The rebellion and the government crackdown have deeply divided Syria into pro- and anti-Assad camps, though many Syrians have expressed disgust with the violence emanating from both sides.
The opposition has been skeptical of Annan's peace plan, generally viewing it as a smoke screen for the Syrian regime to buy time and placate its international patrons -- notably Russia, which says it strongly backs the U.N. peace effort. Russia has blocked any direct international action against Assad's government and has warned against forced "regime change" in Syria.
But observers say Russia, heavily invested in the Annan mission, may see its diplomatic prestige at stake if the U.N. peace plan comes asunder and Syria plunges into further chaos and full-fledged civil war.
Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether Moscow will pressure its Syrian ally to take "bold steps" -- such as pulling back its forces from towns and cities, a move that is likely fraught with peril for Assad's shaky rule.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Kofi Annan, center left, meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad, right. Credit: Syrian Arab News Agency / Getty Images