Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has told Kofi Annan, the joint United Nations and Arab League envoy, that there can be no political progress in his country while "terrorist groups" are spreading chaos.
"Syria is ready to make a success of any honest effort to find a solution for the events it is witnessing," the Syrian Arab news agency quoted Assad as saying. "No political dialogue or political activity can succeed while there are armed terrorist groups operating and spreading chaos and instability."
The rebuff to the peace mission of Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, who travelled to Damascus to seek an end to the violence, came as Syrian troops launched a fresh assault on Idlib city and international divisions over the crisis multiplied.
According to the state news agency, Assad told Annan that, while his country was ready for "any honest effort" to settle almost a year of violence, his precondition was the cessation of attacks by opposition groups.
Annan's visit marks a new international push for peace nearly a year after protesters took to the streets to demand Assad's removal from power, inspired by Arab spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Despite the violence, which the UN says has claimed more than 7500 lives, the international community has been extremely reluctant to back military intervention.
Since then, the regime has dispatched snipers, tanks and civilian gunmen to crush dissent.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said yesterday that Annan's priority in visiting Syria had been to halt all fighting by government forces and rebels. Ban said a ceasefire should be quickly followed by inclusive talks to resolve the year-long conflict.
Diplomats have said this could prove difficult because opposition leaders have already rejected calls for dialogue, saying only more military aid can stop Assad's deadly crackdown.
The meeting came as opposition activists reported a new government assault on Idlib. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the Government was shelling the Idlib region after tanks moved towards the area in recent days.
Reinforcements have been pouring into Idlib for days, including dozens of tanks and armoured personnel carriers, activists said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sought to defend his country's stance on the crisis to Arab leaders angered by Moscow's blocking tactics.
Last month Russia and China vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution that would have supported an Arab League peace plan calling on Assad to hand over his powers.
That brought accusations that Russia was giving Assad diplomatic cover to intensify his crackdown.
"We are not protecting any regimes," Lavrov insisted at a heated session of the Arab League in Cairo. "We are protecting international law ... We are not looking for a special prize or geopolitical interest here." ObserverBy Peter Beaumont