x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Syrian uprising in bloody deadlock

UN chief pushes for resolution to stop death toll mounting.

A boy peers out of a tent in a camp for Syrian refugees in the Turkish city of Antakya yesterday.
A boy peers out of a tent in a camp for Syrian refugees in the Turkish city of Antakya yesterday.

UNITED NATIONS // A year after the uprising began against Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, government forces are overrunning opposition strongholds.

Diplomacy has so far failed and a new United Nations effort for a ceasefire and talks faces considerable obstacles.

Russia, Syria's strongest ally and main arms supplier, and China have used their UN Security Council vetoes to block demands that Mr Al Assad step aside.

The UN cannot agree on how to stop the fighting. Neither the government nor the rebels appear ready to lay abandon the fighting.

As the Security Council receives a satellite briefing today from the UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, who met Mr Al Assad twice, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon says it is time to act.

"We cannot go on like this," Mr Ban told reporters this week. "The Security Council should adopt a resolution immediately.

"The longer you talk, or delay, more and more people, hundreds and even thousands of people will be killed."

Mr Ban said he told the foreign ministers of Russia, the US, France, the UK, Germany and Portugal who attended a Security Council meeting this week the time for division was over.

Mr Ban said a simplified resolution that would court Russia by focusing only on a ceasefire and starting a dialogue, and not Mr Al Assad's removal, would have an impact on his "political psychology".

It would show that the world had fundamentally agreed that the violence, which the UN estimates has killed more than 8,000 people so far, must stop, he said.

A new Security Council resolution would not demand Mr Al Assad's departure, as the drafts vetoed by Russia and China had.

However, Mr Ban said, "If he thinks he can weather this storm ... he [has made] a serious misjudgement. He cannot continue like this. He has gone too deep, too far".

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, speaking in the Security Council this week, opened the way to a diplomatic deal. He had arrived in New York from an Arab League meeting in Cairo in which he hammered out an agreement of five principles that he proposed as the basis for the new resolution.

Those principles are an end of violence "from all sources"; "impartial monitoring" of a ceasefire; no foreign interference in Syria; "unimpeded access" for humanitarian aid; and "strong support" for Mr Annan's attempt to "launch political dialogue" between the government and the opposition.

"It is on this basis that we are ready to work on a UN Security Council resolution, as we were prepared to do last autumn when our draft resolutions were being submitted, but, unfortunately, were not supported by several UN Security Council members," Mr Lavrov said.

That led Russia and China to veto the two resolutions.

Notably absent from the principles is the key demand of a January Arab League plan to have Mr Al Assad step aside and delegate authority to a vice president who would form a temporary government leading to elections.

Mr Al Assad has called for such elections on May 7 based on a referendum he had passed in Syria last month. But the opposition has vowed to boycott the vote and the West and Arab nations have dismissed the exercise as a ploy.

Mr Annan tailored his approach to Mr Al Assad in two face-to-face meetings in Damascus last weekend by holding back on the Arab League demand that he step aside.

Diplomats said Mr Annan had so far received a less than positive response from Mr Al Assad but was still seeking clarification of the Syrian leader's position.

But the sticking point between Russia and the Western-Arab alliance remains the timing of a ceasefire.

"My advice is that it is the Syrian forces who started this and they must stop this disproportionate use of force," Mr Ban said. "Once it is gone, you have a means to assure that the opposition stops the violence too."

A simultaneous ceasefire would imply an equivalency of responsibility for hostilities, which the West would not accept. "It is our red line," a western diplomat said.

"The responsibility lies with the regime to stop the violence first," the diplomat said. "They have a more disciplined army. They can make an instruction to stop the violence at 6 o'clock in the morning. The opposition is made up of different groups. Yes, there are some armed, yes, there are some extremists, but basically they are people defending their neighbourhoods."

After driving most armed rebels and scores of terrified residents out of opposition neighbourhoods in Homs and Idlib in the past two weeks, Mr Al Assad's security forces have turned their attention to Deraa in the south, the birthplace of the revolt on March 15 last year.

In Damascus yesterday huge crowds hit the streets in support of Mr Al Assad, suggesting he continues to enjoy a solid base of support among anti-Islamists, Syrians on the government payroll and the Alawite sect.