West, Arabs Urge UN Action on Syria as Assad’s Forces Hit Hard

Posted January 31st, 2012 at 7:05 pm (UTC-5)
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Arab and Western states have urged the United Nations Security Council to swiftly act to halt Syria's escalating violence and endorse an Arab plan for President Bashar al-Assad to cede power after his government crushed rebel positions in the Damascus suburbs.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby urged the council Tuesday 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-European draft under which Mr. Assad would agree to halt the violence and give up power ahead of negotiations on a settlement.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton charged Mr. Assad with stoking sectarian divisions, saying the Arab League had offered the Syrian leader “many chances to change course.” She cited “clear” evidence that government forces “are initiating nearly all the attacks that kill civilians” and warned the country is heading toward civil war.

Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari rejected the suggestion his government is responsible for the crisis, accusing the United States and its European allies of wanting to conquer new territory in the Middle East. Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said the international body has no mandate to meddle in what he called Syria's “internal conflict.”

In a clear nod to veto-wielding Russia's concerns, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the council the resolution “does not call for military action and could not be used to authorize it.” His French counterpart urged the group to end its “scandalous silence” over the bloodshed in Syria and support the proposed peace plan.

The document endorses an Arab League plan requiring Mr. Assad to transfer power to his first deputy, Farouk al-Sharaa, and form a unity government to prepare for elections under international supervision. 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 that 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.

Activist groups said 25 people were killed on Monday in the Damascus suburbs and dozens more died in other parts of the country, mostly in raids in and around the central city of Homs.

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 in January, before it stopped updating the figure because of difficulties in obtaining information.