Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Russia in UN showdown over Syria 'killing machine'

Clinton, backed by her French and British counterparts led the charge for a tough UN resolution

Russia has clashed with Western powers and the Arab League over their demand that the United Nations take immediate action to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's "killing machine."

The wrangling at the United Nations Tuesday came as fighting sharply escalated between Assad's security forces and rebels, with activists saying more than 5,400 people have died in a 10-month-old uprising.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, backed by her French and British counterparts as well as Qatar's prime minister, led the charge for a tough UN resolution that would call on Assad to end the bloodshed and hand over power.

"We all know that change is coming to Syria. Despite its ruthless tactics, the Assad regime's reign of terror will end," Clinton told the UN Security Council.

"The question for us is: how many more innocent civilians will die before this country is able to move forward?"

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani, speaking on behalf of the Arab League, said Assad's regime had "failed to make any sincere effort" to end the crisis and believed the only solution was "to kill its own people."

"Bloodshed continued and the killing machine is still at work," he said.

But Russia, a longstanding ally of Assad and one of the regime's top suppliers of weapons, declared that the UN body did not have the authority to impose such a resolution. China voiced support for Russia's position.

Moscow's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, argued that Syria should "be able to decide for itself" and said the Council "cannot impose the parameters for an internal settlement. It simply does not have the mandate to do so."

However, the tone of the debate was measured and Churkin said that the latest version of the resolution "gives rise for hope."

"We hope that the Council will come to consensus on the Syrian issue, as is not only possible but also necessary," he said.

Speaking to reporters later, he also hinted at compromise, saying: "I think that we can produce a text which would be useful in a way which would help the Arab League to play its key role."

An image grab taken from a video uploaded on YouTube shows anti-regime protesters in Maaret al-Noman

France also held out the possibility of a successful UN resolution and said that diplomats would pursue talks.

"From what I've heard, I take away that this is not completely impossible and that there is a chance of bringing the viewpoints together," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

The key sticking point appeared to be the Arab League call for Assad's speedy departure.

"Regime change is not our profession," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a trip to Australia.

US officials said that Clinton tried unsuccessfully for two days to speak to Lavrov. Clinton dismissed suggestions that Lavrov snubbed her, saying that it was difficult to reach him in distant Australia.

The draft resolution, which was introduced by Arab League member Morocco, calls for the formation of a unity government leading to "transparent and free elections."

It stresses that there will be no foreign military intervention in Syria as there was in Libya, helping to topple Moamer Kadhafi.

In Washington, US intelligence chief James Clapper said the fall of the Assad regime was in any case inevitable.

"I do not see how he can sustain his rule of Syria," Clapper told senators. "I personally believe it's a question of time but that's the issue, it could be a long time."

Syria remained defiant, with UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari saying his country would "stand firm in confronting its enemies."

He accused the Western-Arab alliance of "double standards" and of "fomenting the crisis."

The opposition Syrian National Council meanwhile deplored the international community's lack of "swift action" to protect civilians "by all necessary means," in a statement on Facebook.

On Monday alone, almost 100 people, including 55 civilians, were killed during a regime assault on the flashpoint city of Homs, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On Tuesday, at least 22 people were killed, all but one of them civilians, the Observatory said.

The rebel Free Syrian Army said half of the country was now effectively a no-go zone for the security forces.

"Fifty percent of Syrian territory is no longer under the control of the regime," its Turkey-based commander Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad told AFP.

He said the morale of government troops was extremely low. "That's why they are bombing indiscriminately, killing men, women and children," he said.

CIA director David Petraeus told senators in Washington that Assad now faced challenges in Damascus and Aleppo, two cities that had been seen as insulated from the unrest.

"I think it has shown indeed how substantial the opposition to the regime is and how it is in fact growing and how increasing areas are becoming beyond the reach of the regime security forces," Petraeus said.

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