South Africa’s final day at the helm of the United Nations Security Council proved a dramatic one as the Arab League urged action on Syria. There’s little doubt that some kind of action is indeed required, but the jury’s still out on whether the Security Council, or anybody who is not Syrian for that matter, is fit to enact that action. In the past week, reports of violence have increased tremendously.
Events in the last week however may well signal a shift in the development of this conflict. Late Wednesday evening a video emerged showing Syrian rebel forces using a captured tank to fire on government troops in the beleaguered city of Homs. Local committees reported 70 people killed on Wednesday, among them 14 defected soldiers, two women and two children. Death and destruction now share Bashar Al-Assad’s reign in Syria. Last Thursday, opposition forces said 100 people were killed and massacres were alleged in two towns.
On Saturday, we learned 50 Syrian troops in the province of Homs had defected.
On Sunday, another report put the death toll at 66 for the day. Twenty-two of the dead were regime troops. On Monday, 29 people were reported killed, 23 civilians and six members of the security forces – indicating that the situation has progressed from a despot cracking down on peaceful dissent to an armed conflict between a government forces and a rebel army.
Rebels have also been reported to have blown up a gas pipeline, and rebel troops, consisting mostly of army deserters, ambushed a minivan carrying Syrian troops. This is already civil war.
Fierce clashes have been reported in Damascus itself. Opposition spokesmen said on Sunday state forces killed at least five people in Damascus neighbourhoods taken over by the opposition. The clashes have been described as the fiercest to date. “It was urban warfare,” one opposition activist said. “There were corpses in the streets.”
These reports of clashes in the capital are significant because they hint at a brewing discontent with Al-Assad in Damascus. Unlike the restive towns of Hama and Homs, Syria’s largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo have not seen substantial protests against Bashar Al-Assad. Instead, the pro-Assad rallies have far outnumbered protests against him. The Syrian opposition parties argue that the security forces in the capital have been too strong to fight against, but their argument fails to acknowledge the support Al-Assad continues to enjoy there. While the number of the opposition forces does indeed swell, Bashar Al-Assad continues to enjoy substantial support from his minority Allawite sect, as well as the business elite. His survival will depend on the endurance of the opposition and their readiness to take the fight to Al-Assad’s forces.
The Saudis have been particularly busy lobbying Sunni businessmen in Damascus to turn against Al-Assad, with varied success. The Syrian opposition is to date too fragmented to realistically sway politically ambivalent Syrians. Accounts of violence from the opposition have also not helped to further the opposition cause.
But the extent of the violence reported in Damascus over the past few days suggests that Al-Assad is now battling a new challenge to his regime. The Arab League monitors, who had travelled to Syria to ascertain the implementation of reforms, aborted their mission citing this rising incidence of violence.
On Wednesday, Security Council diplomats reported a business-like mood among ambassadors. Instead of going through the draft resolution paragraph by paragraph, as they usually would, diplomats have focused on ironing their differences on the most contentious issues first. South Africa has continued to urge a political solution to the conflict, but Russia is still adamant that it will not support any council action that would meddle in the internal affairs of a member state.
Earlier on Wednesday, Russia said again that it would not hesitate to veto any UN resolution on Syria that it finds unacceptable. Russia insists any resolution passed by the Security Council must explicitly rule out military intervention. “If the text will be unacceptable for us we will vote against it, of course,” Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin is reported to have told reporters in Moscow via a videolink from New York. “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,” he said.
Forthcoming presidential elections in Russia will further embolden Vladimir Putin to resist Western pressure to cave in to the Arab League’s solution to the crisis. The Security Council approved Libyan intervention was especially unpopular in Russia, where it was seen as neo-imperialism, and preventing an American and European intervention in Syria may well help Putin look strong at home.
Senior Russia officials however are set to meet members of the Syrian opposition in an effort to force a negotiated settlement. And however much Russia stands in the way of the Security Council, it seems Russia is itself aware of Al-Assad’s dwindling power in Syria. Al-Assad’s days as Syria’s strongman appear numbered. DM
Photo: Members of the Free Syria Army. (REUTERS)
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