UN backing in vote cuts down Syria options
UNITED NATIONS // Time might be running out for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis after the UN General Assembly's symbolic support for an Arab League political plan demanding President Bashar Al Assad quit was adopted overwhelmingly early yesterday morning.
With virtually no political solution left for the UN, fears are growing that only a military option can end the crisis and bring peace after a year of violence that has killed about 8,000 people.
Last Sunday the Arab League passed a resolution vowing material support for Syrian rebels, raising concern that more arms will flood the country as the opposition seeks to overthrow the regime by force.
The General Assembly's non-binding resolution, which passed with 138 votes in favour and only 12 against - and 17 abstentions - "fully supports" the Arab League plan for Mr Al Assad to relinquish power to a vice president while a national unity government is formed, leading to a general election.
Damascus has already rejected the plan.
Russia and China were among the dozen countries that voted against the resolution.
They vetoed a similar move in the UN Security Council, where resolutions are binding. General Assembly resolutions cannot be enforced, though they are a show of the world body's opinion.
The General Assembly's strong vote leaves Russia and China diplomatically isolated. It was not clear how Moscow and Beijing would react.
"This puts pressure on the Russians and Chinese because of the way they are perceived in the region and around the world," said a Security Council diplomat. "Their public image is at risk."
The Chinese vice foreign minister, Zhai Jun, arrived in Damascus yesterday for a two-day visit. Moscow has an open line of communication with the regime. But it is not at all clear if Beijing and Moscow would press Mr Al Assad to end his violent crackdown, or whether he would listen if they did.
Syrian forces, disregarding UN condemnation of their violent suppression of the revolt, renewed a bombardment of the opposition stronghold of Homs and attacks on rebels in Deraa yesterday. Demonstrations against Mr Al Assad were reported by activists in several cities across Syria, including Damascus and the commercial hub Aleppo, after Friday. prayers despite the threat of violence from security forces.
The immediate focus of the UN now has shifted to relieving the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria.
France has proposed opening a humanitarian corridor into the country, and Moscow at first said it was willing to listen. But such a corridor would probably require a foreign armed presence to protect aid shipments from government and rebel forces.
It is unlikely Russia would agree, diplomats said. "Focusing on the humanitarian front might mean trying to get Russian support at the cost of abandoning the Arab League political plan," one diplomat said.
"We also don't have the details of how humanitarian assistance would take place," he said.
"Does it mean boots on the ground, ships carrying aid ashore or helicopters dropping it from the air?"
A new international contact group, called the Friends of Syria, is due to meet for the first time in Tunis on Friday.
But the group's options are limited amid speculation its only political move might be to agree to increased arms shipments to the rebels.
"Capitals are now talking about what the core message will be coming out of the Tunis meeting," a diplomat said.
"Beyond the humanitarian aspects, there should be a clear warning to Assad. But there are so many players involved that it is not clear what solution could be devised."
Russia appeared to be so taken aback in the General Assembly it did not attempt to put its amendments to the resolution up for a vote.
"They did not want to be voted down 12 times," said a diplomat.
Among those amendments, which the resolution's Arab sponsors had previously rejected, were a call to nations to refrain from interference in Syrian affairs, for the government and the opposition to withdraw their forces from cities and towns and for the Syrian opposition to dissociate itself from armed groups, while urging nations that can to use their influence to restrain extremists.
The resolution does not specifically condemn recent bomb attacks on Aleppo and Damascus, that Al Qaeda have claimed responsibility for.
"That tells you everything you need to know," said the Syrian Ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, who has blamed Gulf nations for supporting attacks, a charge they reject.
The insertion of Al Qaeda into the crisis, which Washington formally acknowledged on Thursday, presents a political headache for the West.
It undermines its black-and-white narrative against Mr Al Assad and gives credibility to his claims that terrorists are trying to overthrow him.
The West has not raised any concern about the possible rise to power of Islamists in Syria if Mr Al Assad were to leave.
This point has rankled Moscow, which faces its own Islamist uprisings in the north Caucuses, analysts said.
"It is not for us to back champions, but for the people of Syria to decide who they want to lead them," a western diplomat said.
Updated: February 18, 2012 04:00 AM