Feb. 16 (Bloomberg) -- The United Nations denounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s deadly crackdown on protesters as his security forces pushed on with attacks on the city of Homs, highlighting the world body’s inability to stem the bloodshed.
With 137 votes in favor, 12 against and 17 abstentions, the 193-member General Assembly approved a non-binding resolution that condemned Assad’s human rights violations and endorsed an Arab League plan to end the almost yearlong conflict. Those voting against included Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.
In Syria, security forces extended a two-week artillery attack on the city of Homs and the army also deployed armored vehicles and raided homes in Qaboun, a suburb of the capital, Damascus, and carried out attacks in the southern province of Daraa, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The longer we debate, the more people will die,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in Vienna ahead of the vote. Citing the shelling of neighborhoods and jailing of children by the regime, he said “we see almost certain crimes against humanity.”
While the lopsided vote highlights Assad’s growing isolation, the resolution lacks bite after a similarly-phrased binding measure prodding him to step aside was blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes Feb. 4 in the Security Council, the UN’s decision-making body. That is the second time the two veto-wielders have blocked efforts to hold Assad accountable.
The UN has estimated that more than 5,400 people had been killed in Syria through last year, while Saudi Arabia says the death toll is at least 7,000. At least 10 defectors and four civilians were killed today in Hama from shelling, the observatory said. The Local Coordination Committees, a group that opposes Assad, said at least 32 were killed yesterday.
With immediate options at the UN exhausted, Western and Arab nations are organizing a “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia next week to search for measures -- short of military intervention -- to shift the balance against Assad and provide a measure of support for his opponents. A potentially divisive issue is whether some Arab nations may seek to arm the opposition.
“There is a lot at stake and, given its strategic importance, it will be very hard for regional countries to keep their hands off Syria,” Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview.
In Vienna yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his nation would support a UN role in Syrian peacekeeping if outside intervention isn’t allowed and the opposition agrees to a cease-fire.
Russia is dispatching an envoy, Alexei Pushkov, head of the lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, for meetings with the Syrian leadership in Damascus next week, Interfax reported today. In addition, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun will travel to Syria Feb. 17 to Feb. 18, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a briefing in Beijing today.
While Lavrov said dialogue with the opposition could lead to Assad’s departure from power, Syrian forces stepped up their assault even as Assad called yesterday for a constitutional referendum on Feb. 26. The draft document promised “political pluralism” and democratic elections, and would limit presidents to two seven-year terms.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called Assad’s proposal “laughable” and said yesterday that “promises of reforms have usually been followed by an increase in brutality and have never been delivered upon by this regime since the beginning of the peaceful demonstrations.”
Assad has blamed the revolt, which is the strongest challenge to his rule since he took office after his father died in 2000, on “terrorists” and foreign enemies.
Stung by the failure in the UN Security Council, which alone can authorize sanctions and military intervention, the 22-member Arab League is struggling to influence the outcome in Syria. It has already imposed economic sanctions on the Assad regime. Assad has rejected all of the resolutions put forward by Arab leaders.
The Tunis gathering may attract representatives from as many as 90 nations, including many foreign ministers. It may highlight anew the dilemmas the international community faces in trying to confront Syria, including whether to arm Assad’s opposition.
Groups inside Syria that operate loosely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army consist of local armed groups with only limited contact with armed rebels in neighboring areas. The Gulf States, led by the monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are the most likely candidates to supply the opposition with the means to buy weapons, perhaps covertly.
Asked about the possibility that Arab states might arm Syrian rebels, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Feb. 14 that the U.S. wants instead to see a peaceful democratic transition.
“What in practice can they do?” said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister, commenting on the “Friends” meeting. “Not much.”
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