x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Iran and Russia increase pressure on Assad as violence grows

Formerly staunch Assad allies signal growing concern as tanks and troops continue attack on Homs, while Red Crescent ambulance is riddled with bullets.

DAMASCUS // Two of the Syrian regime's staunchest allies signalled their growing alarm at the bloodshed as security forces supported by tanks continued their deadly offensive in Homs yesterday.

Both Iran and Russia increased pressure on the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, to curtail military operations and find a political solution to the six-month uprising.

Army and security forces searching for dissidents and deserting troops also moved into the northwestern village of Ibleen, according to activists. Locals said heavy gunfire could be heard.

At least three army defectors were killed there yesterday, activists said. There was no immediate word of casualties in Homs, where between 20 and 30 people were killed on Wednesday.

"It's chaos, no one knows what's going on in Homs, only that many have died, the security have gone in there again, it's like a nightmare that just keeps repeating," said a pro-democracy figure in Damascus. "The situation just keeps getting worse and worse."

Communications to affected neighbourhoods of the central city, which has been a focal point for anti-regime protests, remained largely cut yesterday but some activists spoke of tanks firing heavy machineguns and snipers shooting people from rooftops as attack helicopters circled overhead.

In an indication of how heavy the gunfire has been over the past two days, an ambulance from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was hit by 16 bullets on Wednesday as its crew of young volunteer paramedics tried to reach wounded civilians.

"A team of volunteers was evacuating an injured person to a hospital in the Bab Tadmur area in the city of Homs, when their ambulance was hit by 16 bullets.

Three youth volunteer first aiders were injured, one of them seriously, and taken to hospital, where they are receiving medical care," SARC said yesterday.

A video posted online showed the vehicle, clearly marked as an ambulance, riddled with holes.

"Many ambulances in Homs have been shot at one time or another - they all seem to have bullet holes in them," said a source close to the organisation. "It's a bloody business up there. Lots of people are dying."

SARC crews are the only organised source of independent medical care for the wounded in protest areas across Syria, many of which have been declared military zones by the authorities.

Those wounded at protests frequently refuse to go to state-run medial facilities because they fear arrest by security units.

The attack on the ambulance comes days after the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, met Mr Al Assad to press his demand for access to detention centres run by Syria's shadowy security agencies.

This week, the ICRC was given permission for the first time to go to jails run by the ministry of interior.

Syria's state-run media made no mention of the ambulance incident and reported that "armed terrorist groups" killed eight security personnel in Homs on Wednesday and "assaulted civilians and security forces and attacked public and private property". The regime insists it is fighting a foreign-backed Islamist insurgency that has claimed the lives of about 600 security officers, not facing a largely peaceful popular uprising.

More than 2,200 people have been killed by security forces since March. The UN says there is clear evidence Syrian security forces are violating human rights, including summary executions and widespread use of torture.

In a signal that even Syria's staunchest allies have become alarmed at the deteriorating situation, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, said a "military solution is never the right solution" on Wednesday.

He added that there "should be talks" between the regime and opposition figures. The call echoed a demand from Moscow, with Russia seeking to bring opposition groups and the Syrian regime to the negotiating table.

Mikhael Margelov, a Russian presidential envoy to the Middle East, is to hold talks with Syrian opposition figures in Moscow today.

Russian officials are then due to meet Bouthaina Shabaan, an adviser to Mr Al Assad, on Monday. Ms Shabaan, a close aide to the Syrian leader, was placed under US economic sanctions last month.

Moscow has given Syria vital backing in the United Nations Security Council, preventing the hard censure of Damascus demanded by western members.

But, while warning against Libya-style foreign intervention in Syria, Russia has told the regime it must reform or risks being swept away.

Analysts said Moscow is trying to broker a plan that will leave Mr Al Assad in power, at least until his second seven-year-term of office expires in 2014.

Leaked documents from inside the Arab League suggest it will propose a similar plan when Nabil Al Arabi, the organisation's chief, arrives in Damascus tomorrow.

Mr Al Arabi was to hold talks with Mr Al Assad in Syria on Wednesday but the visit was postponed for undisclosed reasons. Syria has made clear its anger with the Arab League over critical comments aimed at Damascus over its repression of protesters.

According to the leaked documents, Mr Al Arabi, with the backing of Arab states, will call for an immediate end to security operations and for the Syrian authorities to announce that in 2014 there will be a contested presidential election for the first time since the 1960s.

Both Mr Al Assad, and his father and predecessor Hafez Al Assad, retained power in uncontested ballots in which they won more than 97 per cent of the vote. Mr Al Assad, who enjoys strong support from a significant segment of the Syrian people, insists he has put in place a programme of political reforms.

A parliamentary election has been scheduled for February but the issue of presidential elections has not even been broached.

"Assad's retention of power is not something anyone in the regime is willing to discuss," said one analyst. "Unfortunately, the protesters don't want to discuss it, they want Assad gone."

psands@thenational.ae