Syria Battle Persists As Russia Hardens U.N. Stance

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Syrian troops on Wednesday continued to push back dissident soldiers in the Damascus suburbs, while Russia hardened its stance against a United Nations Security Council resolution that seeks to ease President Bashar al-Assad out of power and condemn the regime for its violence against protesters.

Syria Battle Persists As Russia Hardens U.N. Stance

Syrian troops on Wednesday continued to push back dissident soldiers in the Damascus suburbs, while Russia hardened its stance against a United Nations Security Council resolution that seeks to ease President Bashar al-Assad out of power and condemn the regime for its violence against protesters.

Government forces battled defected soldiers from the Free Syrian Army and the armed opposition fighters backing them in the hills around the capital and the adjacent Wadi Barada valley. Activists said residents reported shelling and heavy shooting for most of the day.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based group, reported 24 people killed in neighboring towns, including at least six army defectors. Closer to Damascus, security forces conducted home raids in the suburb of Moadamiya, in some cases coming in with lists of wanted activists, other activist groups said.

The Local Coordination Committees, a grass-roots activist network, said it had recorded 7,100 deaths since the uprising started in March, including 461 children. Of the total, 2,454 were in the besieged city of Homs, an opposition stronghold that has come under renewed military attack in the past two weeks.

Heavy casualties were also reported in Hama, "which continues to pay the price for its dignity since 1982," the group said. That year, the country's former president—Mr. Assad's father—led a military campaign against an Islamist insurgency that culminated in an attack on the city of Hama that left between 10,000 and 40,000 people dead, Syrian and international rights groups estimate.

Protests appeared larger and energized on Wednesday as activists prepared to mark the 30th anniversary of what they call "the Hama massacre" starting Thursday. They planned protests and sit-ins in Hama, with nationwide protests called in solidarity with the city, where government troops have repeatedly cracked down on swelling protests.

But activists also said they were largely disappointed with Tuesday's Security Council session, where they said Syrian ally Russia didn't appear to ease its objections to any U.N. action that would condemn or censure the regime, despite meetings with Russian diplomats.

"We gave up on the international community a long time ago," a dissident commander with the FSA said by telephone on Wednesday.

Others were more hopeful that the renewed vigor over Syria at the U.N. meant the diplomatic path wasn't totally blocked.

"We have come a long way, with Syria seriously on the international agenda," said Moaz al-Sibai, a Saudi Arabia-based member of the Syrian National Council, a leading opposition group. "The presence of the U.S., U.K. and French foreign ministers at the Security Council…was positive and important. It gives us a sense things are going in the right direction," he said.

The SNC leadership has been in talks with Arab, Western and Russian diplomats at the U.N. this week. The group's president, Burhan Ghalioun, has assured Russian diplomats in private meetings that Russian interests in Syria won't be harmed under a new leadership, council members said.

"Our general impression is that the Russians are negotiating," Mr. Sibai said. "They are trying to secure guarantees for the no-veto that their interests in the country will be not compromised."

On Wednesday, Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said of the proposed resolution, "If it is a text that we consider erroneous, that will lead to a worsening of the crisis, we will not allow it to be passed. That is unequivocal," Reuters reported. "If the text will be unacceptable for us, we will vote against it, of course."

His comments came a day after he seemed to create an opening to find a way for a deal at the Security Council that would endorse the Arab League plan to remove Mr. Assad from power in favor of a government of national unity leading to democratic elections, saying the current draft incorporates elements of a Russian resolution proposed in December.

"This gives rise for hope," Mr. Churkin told the council on Tuesday. "We hope that the council will come to consensus on the Syrian issue, as is not only possible but also necessary."

Vladimir Chizhov, Russia's ambassador to the European Union, on Wednesday said Moscow would reject the resolution unless it clearly rules out the use of force, Reuters reported. The draft resolution now refers to "the need to resolve the current crisis in Syria peacefully." Provisional language in the text also stresses that "nothing in this resolution compels states to resort to the use of force or the threat of force."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday in Jerusalem said: "We cannot wait any longer until the political process is finished while many people are being killed. First, all violence must stop, and I sincerely hope this will lead to a political solution. That is what I am urging to the international community."

Syria was long a foothold for Soviet influence in the Middle East. It is a major arms buyer from Russia, which maintains a naval base in Tartous on the Syrian coast.

China, which last year joined Russia in vetoing a Security Council resolution on Syria, on Wednesday for the first time warned Chinese citizens and companies in Syria to take caution amid the escalating violence, Xinhua news agency reported. The Chinese commerce ministry warned citizens "to avoid traveling to Syria for the time being and urged Chinese companies in the country to enhance security procedures and withdraw from regions that are experiencing armed conflict."