Syria’s Forces Pound Opposition Towns as UN Envoy Plans Mediation Effort

Syrian forces pounded towns where opposition is concentrated as United Nations officials prepared to discuss how to pressure Syria and its allies, Russia and China, to end almost a year of violence.

President Bashar al-Assad is under mounting international pressure, coordinated by nations calling themselves the Friends of Syria, to stop the killings. The U.S. is now drafting a new resolution demanding that Syria allow humanitarian aid workers into the country as part of the effort to squeeze Assad, according to a Western diplomat not authorized to speak to the media.

The resolution is also meant to pressure Russia and China, which have protected Syria twice from UN censure. The Friends of Syria believe focusing on the humanitarian situation may make it harder for Syria’s allies to veto the measure, the diplomat said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his predecessor Kofi Annan, the new UN special envoy to Syria, met yesterday in New York to discuss steps to end the violence. The UN estimates more than 7,500 civilians have died since the uprising began in March.

Annan said he plans to go to Syria “fairly soon,” following talks at the Arab League in Cairo. Describing his mediating task as a “tough challenge,” Annan told reporters at the UN headquarters that his message to Assad is “the killing and violence must stop.” He said he also will press to ease humanitarian access and will work with Syrians for a peaceful solution to the conflict over Assad’s continued rule.

‘Too Little, Too Late’

In Syria, the army has shelled the central city of Homs since for a month as well as launching attacks on other parts of the country, including Idlib in the north and towns near Aleppo by the Turkish border. Some soldiers have defected from Assad’s forces as he seeks to reaffirm his mandate as Syria’s leader following a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution.

The poll was “too little, too late,” Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said by e-mail. “The leaders of the Syrian revolution are unwilling to accept any measures that will leave President Assad in power and his security forces in charge of Syria.”

The European Union dismissed the vote’s validity and said Feb. 27 it would tighten sanctions on the Syrian government, freezing the central bank’s assets, banning precious-metals trading with the country and prohibiting cargo-only flights. The measures build on an oil embargo approved in September.

Waiting for Russia

The new U.S. resolution probably won’t be unveiled until after Russia’s elections on March 4 to better gauge its position, the Western diplomat said. There is concern that Russia could still create roadblocks for the resolution by calling for a “balanced text” that places equal blame for the violence on the government and the opposition.

The Friends of Syria demanded access for humanitarian workers at their meeting in Tunis on Feb. 24 as Clinton pledged $10 million in food, medicine and other supplies for Syrians trapped in their cities. She urged patience in a hearing yesterday before a House Appropriations subcommittee examining the State Department’s budget.

“It took us more than a year for the transition in Yemen to finally happen, but it did happen,” Clinton said, referring to the departure of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in December. “Syria is one of the most militarized countries in the world,” she said, complicating efforts to help the opposition.

China’s Call

Syria’s army has intensified attacks since a resolution supported by the Arab League aimed at installing a transitional government, to be followed by elections, was vetoed at the UN Security Council by Russia and China on Feb. 4. At least 60 people died in army assaults on Feb. 28 and 138 were killed the previous day, Al Arabiya television reported.

“We have asked the Syrian government and relevant parties to stop all violent actions to allow for the recovery of stability as soon as possible,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said yesterday, calling on Assad to heed demands for reform.

The Syrian president issued a decree yesterday, enacting the new constitution backed by 89 percent of the voters, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said. The charter promises democratic elections while limiting presidents to two seven-year terms. The opposition boycotted the referendum, in which 57.4 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Deteriorating Situation

Assad’s forces shelled the besieged town of Rastan, killing and wounding an unspecified number of people, while also targeting the Khalidiyeh neighborhood and Baba Amr district of Homs, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday. About 37 soldiers defected and crossed into Turkey, Al Jazeera television reported, adding to the 60 people who ran away from Assad’s forces on Feb. 28.

“My office has received disturbing reports of a rapidly deteriorating human-rights and humanitarian situation,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva on Feb. 28. “Syrian military and security forces have launched massive campaigns of arrest, arbitrarily detaining thousands of protesters, as well as activists and others suspected of anti-government activities.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Emre Peker in Ankara at epeker2@bloomberg.net; Nayla Razzouk in Dubai at nrazzouk2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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