Syrian Troops Retake Damascus Suburbs as UN Showdown Unfolds

Posted January 31st, 2012 at 4:35 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian government troops retook the Damascus suburbs Tuesday after crushing rebel forces attempting to push closer to the capital, while diplomats took up a U.N. draft resolution demanding President Bashar al-Assad halt the violence and cede power.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby urged the U.N. Security Council to take “rapid and decisive action” while Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani warned the 15-nation body that Syria's “killing machine is still at work.” Al-Thani called for support of the Moroccan-sponsored Arab-EU draft under which Mr. Assad would agree to halt the violence and give up power ahead of negotiations on a settlement.

Other key supporters are to appear at the session, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her British and French counterparts.

Western news agencies that obtained copies of the document say it endorses an Arab League plan requiring the Syrian president to transfer power to his first deputy, Farouk al-Sharaa, and form a unity government to prepare for elections under international supervision. Seeking to allay Russian and Syrian fears, it also makes clear that Western powers have no intention to intervene militarily. The Assad government already has rejected the plan as a violation of its sovereignty.

Russia has vowed to oppose any Security Council measure that it believes could give Western powers a pretext for military action. Syria is a long-time Russian military ally that provides Moscow with a naval base on the Mediterranean coast and frequently buys Russian military supplies.

Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov called the Arab League plan “a path to civil war.”

He said Tuesday the Western and Arab-backed draft resolution will not achieve a compromise in the 10-month long rebellion against Mr. Assad's 11-year autocratic rule.

On the battlefront, activists in eastern districts of Damascus said troops backed by tanks advanced beyond areas from which the defector Free Syrian Army withdrew, capping three days of fighting that reports said killed at least 100 people. Government forces have now recaptured most of the towns rebels had briefly seized last week in the capital's eastern suburbs after several days of heavy fighting mere kilometers from Mr. Assad's seat of power.

It was not possible to confirm the casualties independently because Syria bars foreign media from operating freely in the country.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday he hopes the Security Council will act in a coherent manner that reflects the wishes of the international community for an end to Syria's unrest. He was speaking on a visit to the Jordanian capital Amman.

The Syrian government accuses armed terrorists of driving the anti-Assad revolt and killing 2,000 security personnel. The United Nations estimated the death toll from the unrest at 5,400 earlier this month, before it stopped updating the figure because of difficulties in obtaining information.