x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Assad seizes chance to destroy Homs

As acrimony at the UN brings respite from diplomatic pressure, the Syrian regime turns its artillery on the city that symbolises revolt.

A wounded girl sits beside her mother in the Baba Amro neighbourhood of Homs as Syrian government troops shelled the city for a fourth day.
A wounded girl sits beside her mother in the Baba Amro neighbourhood of Homs as Syrian government troops shelled the city for a fourth day.

DAMASCUS // The attack began at dawn, with barrages of rockets falling into "liberated" residential areas of Homs in the hands of protesters and rebel soldiers from the Free Syrian Army.

Video footage posted online by activists showed corpses and the wounded laid out on the floor of a makeshift hospital. Another field hospital set up by demonstrators had to be evacuated after coming under fire.

Defecting soldiers fought back, shooting towards government troops with small arms. Opposition groups said counter attacks by the rebel Free Syrian Army killed government snipers who had been firing into the residential neighbourhoods.

Many civilians sought refuge in basements but there were unconfirmed reports of buildings collapsing under the weight of incoming fire.

Analysts and activists say the artillery bombardment - in which at least 36 people died, bringing the death toll since the onslaught began at the weekend to 212 - presaged an impending assault by ground troops. The Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, they say, is taking advantage of the respite in diplomatic pressure afforded by infighting at the United Nations Security Council to finally restore central control over the city that has been a focal point for the growing rebellion.

That respite may only be brief. Yesterday the United States closed its Syrian embassy and Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus. A new western push to force Mr Al Assad out of office, with or without Russia and China, may not be long in coming.

Today, Mr Al Assad will meet Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. in Damascus for talks. The visit by Mr Lavrov and the foreign intelligence service director Mikhail Fradkov comes after Saturday's Security Council vote in which Russia and China vetoed an anti-Syria resolution for the second time to shield Mr Al Assad from censure.

Moscow, a major arms supplier to Syria and a close ally, has hinted it will use today's talks to push for a political solution to end the almost year-long crisis that has killed thousands.

The Russian foreign ministry wants to see stability quickly restored "on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come".

Syrian authorities and regime supporters have praised Moscow and Beijing for their Security Council vote.

But Syrian protesters have criticised them in street protests, saying they have given Mr Al Assad a green light to continue killing.

Western and Arab states have been similarly critical. Germany and France yesterday branded Russia and China's positions a scandal and pledged to stand by the Syrian people. The Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, warned Syria was headed for the worst outcome.

Russia and China brushed off the criticisms. Mr Lavrov called the reaction hysterical and said the UN vote should have been delayed until after his talks with Mr Al Assad. Beijing said it had blocked the resolution because approving it "would be sowing the fresh seeds of disaster".

Russia and China fear a tough Security Council resolution could pave the way for Libya-style military intervention.Moscow and Beijing have said they believe the West intends to take military action against Syria in an effort to reshape the political balance of the Middle East in their favour.

Toppling Mr Al Assad would strip Iran and Lebanon's Hizbollah - a militant Shiite group and member of the government in Beirut - of a vital ally.

It's not clear what can happen now diplomatically. The Arab League plan - agreed with Syria in November but now in shambles - was the only initiative on the table and that has now collapsed.

Mr Al Assad refuses the plan's call for him to cede power to his deputy, ahead of elections.

Despite the impasse, Saudi Arabia yesterday urged the international community to remain involved and to seek a solution.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud called for "crucial measures to protect innocent lives and end the bloodshed" before a humanitarian disaster.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, which drafted the Arab League plan, is due to meet on Saturday to discuss what steps it can now take in Syria.

Syrian analysts and some opposition figures have stressed Russia has a crucial role to play and has been one of the few states that can pressure Mr Al Assad to implement urgent political reforms.

But Moscow's ability to influence events may also be fast waning. Opposition groups reject its calls to negotiate with Mr Al Assad while regime forces continue to kill, arrest and torture political activists.

"I suspect we are already be at the point where there is nothing left to say and no talks to be had," said a Syrian analyst.

"The peaceful opposition will be increasingly sidelined in favour of those willing to fight because they see no alternative and the regime will be only too willing to oblige."

He brushed aside suggestions Moscow would seek to ease Mr Al Assad from power.

"No one has that kind of influence over the ruling clique here," he said. "They will decide for themselves what they do, and they have decided Assad will rule Syria or no one will."

Human rights activists have continued their efforts, however, despite worsening violence and armed confrontations between rebel soldiers and government forces in Damascus.

Yesterday's death toll was expected to rise, with more attacks anticipated in Homs overnight and opposition groups saying they were struggling to keep a clear track of the dead amid the chaos that had turned buildings to rubble.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a network of activists that operates throughout the country in defiance of the authorities, said more than 212 people had been killed since Friday night in military operations against Khalidiya, Baba Amro, Bayada and Bab Dreib, key rebel districts of Homs.

Another 10 people were killed by security forces yesterday elsewhere in the country, activists said, with death and injuries in tank-backed assault in the restive region of Zabadany, near the Lebanese border.

None of the death tolls could be independently confirmed, with independent human rights groups banned from working in Syria and diplomats and journalists facing restrictions on their movement.

The Syrian government denied any such military operations.

State media blames "terrorists" for the violence in Homs and said heavy shooting, plumes of thick black smoke and loud explosions - government rocket artillery, according to activists - were caused by armed groups firing mortars and setting fire to oil and tyres, in an effort to show the city under siege.