UN indecision 'fuelling crackdown'

Mon, Feb 13, 2012, 00:00

The UN human rights chief blamed disagreement in the Security Council today for encouraging the Syrian government to step up attacks on opposition strongholds in its campaign to crush an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's 11-year rule.

"The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force," the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the UN General Assembly.

"I am particularly appalled by the ongoing onslaught on Homs," she said. "According to credible accounts, the Syrian army has shelled densely populated neighbourhoods of Homs in what appears to be an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas."

Russia and China on February 4th vetoed a European-Arab draft resolution condemning the crackdown and endorsing an Arab League plan for the Syrian leader to step aside.

An Arab League proposal to boost support for the uprising and to send in foreign peacekeepers has drawn a guarded international response even as Syrian forces bombarded rebellious districts of Homs and attacked other cities.

Mortar rounds and tank fire pounded Baba Amro district, but casualties could not be tallied because communications were cut off, activists told Reuters from Homs.

Activists said 23 people were killed yesterday, adding to a toll of more than 300 since the assault on Homs, strategically

located on the highway between the capital Damascus and second city Aleppo, began on February 3rd. Russia, Dr Assad's close ally and main arms supplier, said it could not support a peacekeeping mission unless both sides ceased the violence first.

World powers, meanwhile, digested Arab League proposals from a meeting in Cairo yesterday that called for a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping force for Syria and pledged to provide political and material aid to the opposition.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear Russia would not support the peacekeeping plan unless there was a halt to violence by both government forces and their armed opponents.

He suggested the latter would be tough to achieve. "The tragedy is that the armed groups that are confronting the forces of the regime are not subordinate to anyone and are not under control," Mr Lavrov said."A halt to the violence must be universal," he said.

China backed what it termed the Arab League's "mediation" but offered no clear sign of support for the peacekeeper call."Relevant moves by the United Nations should be conducive towards lessening tension in Syria . . . rather than complicating things," a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said.

Russia and China were both heavily criticised by the West for blocking the draft UN resolution that backed an Arab League call on Dr Assad to step down.

But the United States and European powers are reluctant to get dragged in militarily, fearing this would be more risky and complicated - given Syria's position along crisscrossing fault lines of Middle East conflict - than the Nato-led air support that helped Libyan rebels oust Muammar Gadafy last year.

British foreign secretary William Hague said today any peacekeeping troops in Syria should come from non-Western countries.

"I don't see the way forward in Syria as being Western boots on the ground in any form, including in any peacekeeping form," he told reporters in South Africa.

The fragmented nature of the opposition to Dr Assad, who is from the Alawite minority in the mostly Sunni Muslim country, is also a problem for those keen on political change in Syria.

The redoubled Arab League effort also highlighted regional rivalries. Its moves have been driven by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchies who have long resented Dr Assad's close ties to Shia regional rival Iran.

Syria, which says it is fighting an insurgency by foreign-backed militants, called the League's resolution "a flagrant departure from the group's charter and a hostile act that targets Syria's security and stability".

At the United Nations, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman said he supported the League's efforts to stop the violence and seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

The Syrian uprising, in which more than 5,000 people have been killed, has become one of the bloodiest of the Arab Spring revolts sweeping the region since the end of 2010.

Analysts say that while Syria is slipping towards a civil war whose sectarian dimensions could inflame the wider region, Dr Assad's downfall is far from imminent. The unrelenting assaults on opposition strongholds show his determination to crush his foes and resist reforms other than on his own terms, they say.

Reuters