x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Russia hamstrings UN on Syria sanctions despite escalating violence

Clashes continue today between soldiers and deserters in the town of Rastan.

DAMASCUS // A new bid by European and Arab states for UN action over Syria's crackdown on dissent hit immediate Russian opposition as the death toll spiked, with more than 120 people reported killed in three days.

The Gulf Arab states and Turkey, which have spearheaded regional condemnation of the Damascus regime, met in Istanbul for talks expected to be dominated by the quest for a tough UN Security Council resolution.

"We are adamant to turn the Middle East region into a basin for peace, stability and prosperity," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in opening remarks.

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least two civilians killed on Saturday and clashes in the town of Rastan 160 kilometres (100 miles) north of the capital between regular soldiers and deserters.

Rastan saw similar fighting in late September when it was the focal point of a military crackdown that killed dozens, activists said at the time.

On Saturday, security forces backed by tanks also raided towns on the outskirts of Damascus, including Sabqa, Hamuriyeh, Jisrin and Erbeen, with fierce clashes with deserters reported.

The Observatory said a child was killed in the oil province of Deir Ezzor when a shell struck his house, and a pipeline was also ablaze in Quriah in Deir Ezzor after being hit by heavy machinegun fire.

At least 384 children have been among the dead in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and almost the same number detained, the UN Children's Fund said on Friday.

The Observatory also said one civilian died of wounds on Saturday near the southern protest hub of Daraa after being shot by security forces.

The latest deaths take the toll over three days to at least 120, with the Britain-based Observatory recording 44 civilians and 12 deserters killed on Friday and 62 on Thursday.

As the Damascus regime's deadly crackdown on dissent fails to let up, the wrangling continues over the wording of the draft UN Security Council resolution, which its supporters want put to the vote in the next week.

Syria's Cold War ally Russia made clear that the Arab and European draft formally submitted by Morocco on Friday crossed "our red lines."

The head of an Arab League monitoring mission said unrest had soared this week "in a significant way," especially in the flashpoint central cities of Homs and Hama and in the northern Idlib region.

The violence, which on Friday for the first time also cost lives in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, "does not help... to get all sides to sit at the negotiating table," General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi said.

Despite the mounting death toll, which the United Nations said last month already topped 5,400, the Security Council has not adopted a single resolution on the crisis since the protests first erupted last March.

A previous European draft that would have threatened "targeted measures" against Assad's regime was vetoed by Beijing and Moscow in October.

Backers of the new resolution hope that critics -- who also include India and South Africa -- will be swayed by the tough new stance of the Arab League, which last weekend demanded that Assad hand his powers to his deputy to pave the way for a national unity government ahead of elections.

The new text "fully supports" the Arab League plan and "encourages" all states to follow sanctions adopted by pan-Arab bloc last November, but contains no mandatory action.

Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the wording crossed "our red lines, where we cannot go."

He said Moscow opposed any hint of sanctions, an arms embargo or "regime change" and was critical of the Arab League, accusing it of seeking to "impose" a solution.

The council has been split on Syria since last year's resolution on Libya which critics say NATO abused to launch military action in support of the uprising that overthrew Moamer Kadhafi.

South Africa's UN ambassador Baso Sangqu said the new Syria draft also hinted at a drive for regime change.

"Obviously if there is anything that could explicitly have regime change in it, then it will cause problems for some of us," Sangqu told reporters.

Britain's UN envoy Mark Lyall Grant dismissed any suggestion that there were sanctions or an arms embargo in the text.

"You shouldn't be fooled by those who are claiming there are all sorts of other things in the text, trying to refight battles over Libya," he told reporters.

"We want, as do the Arabs, a unanimous resolution," said Lyall Grant. "Frankly the time has come when we should be supporting the Arab League."