Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pressed artillery attacks against the central city of Homs after Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at ending the fighting.
Video footage broadcast on Al Arabiya television showed civilians fleeing and smoldering buildings damaged by shelling as heavy gunfire echoed through the city’s streets. Security forces killed 39 people in Homs today and 51 nationwide, the channel said. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the deaths at 29 nationwide, according to an e-mailed statement.
Assad stepped up his crackdown against protesters after Russia and China on Feb. 4 vetoed a proposal by Western and Arab countries that backed an Arab League plan to facilitate a political transition. It was the second time Russia blocked attempts at the UN to hold Assad accountable for a conflict that the UN says has killed more than 5,400 people.
“This is an old regime, using the same old tactics, and it just isn’t going to work,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “They think they can get away with it, and I don’t think they are going to be able to.”
The army also shelled Idlib in the north and Zabadani near the Lebanese border today. A pipeline that transports natural-gas to power plants in northern Syria was blown up by “terrorists,” the official state television reported.
Matter of Time
The fall of the regime is only a matter of time, President Barack Obama said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “It is very important for us to try to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention and I think that’s possible,” he said.
The U.S. has suspended operations at its embassy in Syria, the State Department said today in an e-mailed statement.
Ambassador Robert Ford and all American personnel have left the country, the department said. The surge in violence in Syria “has raised serious concerns that our embassy is not sufficiently protected against armed attack,” it said.
Assad has used tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and helicopters to crush the uprising, which began in mid-March after revolutions ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. His government has blamed “terrorists” and foreign provocateurs for fomenting the protests.
The Syrian Free Army, a group of defecting anti-government officers, will carry out a retaliatory counter attack in the province of Homs, Aref al-Hmoud, a leader of the force, told BBC’s Arabic television service by telephone from Hatay, Turkey.
Assad, who inherited power in 2000, is following tactics used by his father in 1982. That year, Hafez al-Assad crushed a rebellion led by Sunni militants in the city of Hama, killing as many as 10,000 people, according to estimates cited by Human Rights Watch.
“The father crushed a rebellion by murdering thousands in Hama,” Paul Sullivan, a specialist in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington, said in an e-mail. “Bashar seems to think that he is immune from world pressures. This is the age of the Arab Spring and the whole world is watching.”
Syria was an ally of the Soviet Union, receiving weapons and financial support for the Arab standoff with Israel, for two decades after Hafez al-Assad took over the presidency following a 1970 coup. Russia still sells Syria weapons and has its only military base outside the former Soviet Union in the Syrian port of Tartus.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the head of its Foreign Intelligence Service, Mikhail Fradkov, will meet with Assad tomorrow in Damascus. Russia is counting on planned talks to encourage the Syrian government and its opponents to hold negotiations, the Foreign Ministry said.
Lavrov said that his country asked western and Arab nations to wait until after the Russian diplomatic mission to Damascus before putting to a vote their resolution on Syria. “It was absolutely realistic” to reach a deal on the UN resolution, Lavrov said today in comments broadcast on state television.
The Russian visit “indicates that Moscow knows the regime is in trouble,” Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in response to e-mailed questions. “They want to try and see if they can prop it up by convincing it to reform -- the one thing this regime has proven incapable of doing for over four decades.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel views the Russian veto as a “bitter blow” to efforts to bring peace to Syria, government spokesman Georg Streiter told reporters in Berlin today.
The U.S. will tighten sanctions on Syria and work with its allies to put “immense pressure” on Assad to step down, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday.
The Arab League in November imposed sanctions on Syria and sent monitors to the country in an effort to stop the violence. The league later drafted a plan that called for the formation of a national unity government within two months to pave way for elections.