x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Syria's war call escalates violence

United Nations investigators yesterday reported worsening violence by the Syrian authorities on an "alarming" scale, a day after the president, Bashar Al Assad, declared his country to be at war.

The damaged Ikhbariya TV compound after it was attacked by gunmen, in the town of Drousha, about 20 kilometres south of Damascus.
The damaged Ikhbariya TV compound after it was attacked by gunmen, in the town of Drousha, about 20 kilometres south of Damascus.

DAMASCUS // United Nations investigators yesterday reported worsening violence, sectarian bloodletting and rights violations by the Syrian authorities on an "alarming" scale, a day after the president, Bashar Al Assad, declared his country to be at war.

In the morning, the headquarters of a pro-regime television station, Ikhbariya, was attacked by gunmen, killing three journalists and four security guards.

Video footage showed extensive damage to the studios and offices, with one building in the complex, 20 kilometres south of Damascus, destroyed, apparently by explosives. Officials said "terrorist groups" had carried out the assault.

The newly appointed information minister, Umran Zaubie, said the Syrian government held the European Union partly responsible, after economic sanctions were put in place against pro-regime media outlets accused of inciting violence and spreading propaganda.

Mr Zaubie was later quoted by Turkish media as saying Syrian forces may have shot down one of Ankara's reconnaissance jets on Friday after mistaking it for an Israeli aircraft. Already hostile relations between Turkey and Syria sank to a new low after the incident.

Mr Zaubie was reported as saying Damascus did "not want a crisis" between the neighbouring states.

Meanwhile, military operations by regime forces continued across key areas of the country, including Deraa, Idlib, Deir Ezzor, Hama, Homs and suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

Activists reported at least 35 people killed by early evening yesterday, capping what rights monitors say has been the deadliest week since the uprising began last March. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 916 people were killed between June 20 and 26, and that the rate of killing had accelerated during the last month.

Those findings were reflected in a report presented by investigators at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which said abuses were taking place nationwide "on an alarming scale during military operations".

The report said heavy weapons, including tanks, artillery and helicopter gunships had been used in the shelling of "entire neighbourhoods believed to be anti-government" - something that had taken place on two occasions in right in front of UN observers deployed in Syria to monitor an ineffectual ceasefire.

It also noted a "high number" of children being shot by snipers, a widespread use of torture and sexual violence against supporters of the uprising, and use of lethal force by security services against anti-regime demonstrations.

Faisal Al Hamwi, Syria's representative to the HRC called the report politicised, biased and part of a global conspiracy. He walked out of the meeting in protest and said Syria would consider suspending future cooperation with the council.

The UN-appointed investigators said they had been unable to conduct a thorough inquiry into the May 25 massacre at Houla, in Homs province and were, consequently not in a position to conclusively say who was responsible for the deaths of more than 100 people killed there.

However, they said it was "unlikely" to have been committed by anti-regime forces and that the manner of the killings resembled previous atrocities "documented to have been committed by the government" or the feared pro-regime shabbiheh militia.

Rebel forces, increasingly well-armed and well-organised although not able to hold ground against the Syrian military in a direct fight, were also implicated in human rights violations investigators said, including summary executions of pro-government fighters and collaborators, torture of prisoners and kidnapping.

On Tuesday night, after intensive fighting in suburbs of Damascus with the rebel Free Syrian Army attacking areas housing elite military officers and their families, Mr Al Assad had said he considered the country to be "at war" and directed his government ministers to focus the resources of the state at securing victory.

"When we are in a war, all policies and all sides and all sectors need to be directed at winning this war," he said.

Yesterday's UN report said areas of the country had slipped out of government control and that some parts of Syria experiencing civil war-style fighting. It warned the situation had dramatically changed with the growth of an armed insurrection and would worsen further unless the international community took immediate action.

A renewed effort at forging an international consensus and bringing an end to the crisis is due to take place in Geneva on Saturday, Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy to Syria announced yesterday.

He called a meeting involving the five permanent members of the Security Council - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - as well as Turkey and representatives of the Arab League. Iran was not invited.

Mr Annan, backed by Russia, had wanted Iran, Syria's key regional ally, to take part in the gathering, arguing it must be included in any search for a lasting political solution but the US had threatened to boycott if Tehran was offered a role.

Saudi Arabia, long an adversary of Iran and another key player in the Syrian crisis - widely held to be clandestinely arming rebels - was also not invited. UN-brokered efforts to halt worsening bloodshed in Syria have floundered, in part because of sharp divisions within the Security Council. Russia - a major arms supplier to Damascus - and China have stood firmly with Mr Al Assad's government, blocking attempts by western powers to pass critical resolutions or enforce an arms embargo.

All have backed Mr Annan's peace plan, but it has not been implemented on the ground.

"This effort cannot be open-ended. Time is running out. Syria is spiralling into deeper and more destructive violence," Jean-Marie Guéhenno, an assistant to Mr Annan, told the UN Human Rights Council meeting.

At the moment, "all sides appear to not believe in the possibility of a political solution", he said.