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Fighting in Damascus as Russia Resists Sanctions on Assad
Diplomatic efforts to end the crisis in Syria are stalled before a key United Nations vote this week, as fighting raged in Damascus and United Nations monitors struggled to shed light on killings in the village of Tremseh.
In New York, Russia conceded no ground in negotiations over a Western-drafted resolution that threatens President Bashar al- Assad with non-military measures such as sanctions and demands he step aside to make way for a “Syrian-led political transition.” A vote is scheduled for tomorrow.
For the past 17 months, the international community has been powerless to prevent a peaceful revolt from transforming into a war zone. Violence has spilled into the Syrian capital, the heart of Assad’s power base, as conflicting reports emerge over the July 12 shelling of a Sunni Muslim village and the defection of relatives of the head of Syrian intelligence.
“It’s very important that 18 months nearly into this conflict with over 100 people on average dying a day, the council do something different to change the dynamic on the ground,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, told reporters yesterday in New York. “Continuing to do the same old thing is not working.”
As talks on the future of Syria head for a showdown at the UN, Russia and the U.S. are locked in a game of brinkmanship. Russia, which has twice blocked measures to protect its Soviet- era ally, says it will use its veto again.
“This is seen by some as a stepping stone for military intervention,” Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin said. “I made it very clear that we are going to vote against their draft, and we are not going to be the only ones.”
The U.S. has signaled repeatedly that without measures with bite, it’s prepared to send home 300 UN observers. Rice said she saw little point in their staying if “these monitors are confined in essence to their hotel rooms and not able to do what they are doing and really being hung out to dry.”
Russia doesn’t have the nine votes needed to pass its own resolution extending the monitors’ stay by a further 90 days.
“To our great regret, there are elements of blackmail,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow. “We are being told that if you do not agree to passing the resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, then we shall refuse to extend the mandate of the monitoring mission.”
Hopes have faded for UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan’s peace efforts, which in five months have failed to secure a promised cease-fire. His transition plan, which envisions Assad’s mediated exit within a year, hinges on a Russian abstention.
Western requests for Russia to help in Assad’s ouster are “unrealistic,” Lavrov said. “He won’t leave, not because we are defending him, but because a very, very sizable part of the country’s population is behind him,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put yesterday’s death toll at 101 civilians. Forty-one soldiers also died in the fighting, it said in an e-mailed statement. Videos posted on YouTube and Al-Jazeera showed the Syrian Free Army battling government forces in the al-Midan area south of the historical center in central Damascus. The authenticity of the videos couldn’t be verified by Bloomberg News.
Massacre or Fight?
The turmoil on the ground has made it increasingly difficult for international observers to get a clear picture of how many people are dying on a daily basis and in what circumstances, with the opposition’s numbers questioned as exaggerated and the government accused of under-reporting the casualties.
Most recently, doubts have been voiced over the opposition’s account of what happened in Tremseh, a farming village of 10,000 residents, and whether it was a massacre or the outcome of a lopsided fight between government forces and armed rebels.
According to the Syrian National Council, a political umbrella for anti-government activists, 305 people were slaughtered. The July 12 attack began at dawn when Syrian troops surrounded the village with 150 tanks and armored vehicles and started shelling. Then soldiers, backed by the pro-government Shabiha militia, stormed the town for five hours.
Lavrov challenged that version of events and said the assault started after an army patrol near the village came under fire from members of the Syrian Free Army. Opposition fighters then retreated to the village, where they were pursued and attacked by Assad’s forces in fighting that lasted 1 1/2 hours.
UN observers, on their second visit to the site, interviewed 27 local villagers who said troops went door-to-door asking for men, checking their identification before killing them. The attack appeared to be targeted at army defectors and activists, according to the latest UN assessment.
Pools of blood and brain matter were found in some of the more than 50 houses that were burned or destroyed, according to a July 15 statement.
The team of observers still hasn’t been able to determine the number of casualties.
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