Syria Attacks Damascus Suburb Protests as UN Visits Start

UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos
The UN’s emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos, seen here, arrives in Damascus today for a two-day visit, followed by special envoy Kofi Annan on March 10. Photographer: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian forces are shelling protesters in Damascus suburbs as United Nations envoys arrive in the capital seeking to protect humanitarian-aid efforts and end President Bashar al-Assad’s yearlong crackdown.

The government killed at least 39 people today, Al Arabiya reported, and 26 people died yesterday, while tanks continued shelling Yabroud and entered Qarah, about an hour north of Damascus, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The UN’s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, arrived in Damascus for a two-day visit, and special envoy Kofi Annan will follow on March 10.

International efforts to halt the violence that’s claimed more than 7,500 lives by UN estimates come as the U.S. seeks to convince veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China to drop their support for Assad. China pulled out almost all its workers from Syria as their safety deteriorated. President Barack Obama said unilateral military intervention in Syria would be “a mistake” as the country’s main opposition bloc presses the international community for arms and a safe haven.

“Discussions are just beginning and will continue” among the five permanent members of the Security Council, which have veto power, and Morocco, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “If and when, it seems there is a basis for a meaningful and viable text, we will propose one to the full Security Council.”

Humanitarian-Aid Access

Amos, who is on a mission to secure “unhindered access for humanitarian-relief workers” in Syria, met with Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem in Damascus, Elisabeth Byrs, a UN spokeswoman in Geneva, said by telephone. She couldn’t confirm an Associated Press report that Amos had departed for Homs.

Assad laid siege and captured the central district’s Baba Amr neighborhood after shelling it for a month. International aid groups haven’t been allowed access. Amos entered the battered area in Homs today and will make the first assessment of her trip there, the AP said, citing the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The aid organization’s Damascus headquarters couldn’t be reached in repeated phone calls to verify the report.

“We have been able to go to all parts of the country where there has been unrest,” Saleh Dabbakeh, the Damascus representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said today by telephone. “It hasn’t been that we’ve been stopped, but sometimes it has been more difficult. Even in Homs, when fighting was raging in Baba Amr, other areas were accessible.”

China Withdraws Workers

The ICRC sent five convoys with humanitarian and medical assistance to Homs from Feb. 11 to March 3, Dabbakeh said. Government officials citing security reasons still won’t allow the organization to enter Baba Amr, he said.

As the U.S. undertakes a third effort to halt the violence in Syria, the government in Beijing withdrew Chinese nationals “because the situation there is quite complex we need to protect the safety of our workers,” Commerce Minister Chen Deming told reporters in China’s capital today, without saying how many workers had been repatriated. About 100 workers remained behind in Syria to look after Chinese projects.

The proposed U.S. resolution “demands an immediate halt to all forms of violence in Syria” and calls for government officials responsible for “widespread, systematic and gross” human-rights violations to be held accountable, according to a draft e-mailed from the UN yesterday.

Russia Opposition

Assad should withdraw all forces from cities and return them to barracks and “armed elements” of the opposition must abstain from violence, under the draft resolution. The U.S. proposal also supports an Arab League plan to facilitate political transition, which was included in the resolution Russia and China vetoed last month.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry called one-sided outside efforts “unacceptable” and said it won’t revise its position on resolving the crisis in Syria. “Reaching a lasting Syrian solution is possible only on the basis of wide-ranging, national dialogue,” the ministry said on its website yesterday.

The Syrian National Council, the leading alliance of opposition groups, will lobby the “Friends of Syria” for weapons and recognition when the group of about 70 nations reconvenes in Istanbul later this month, council member Mustafa Hamitoglu said. The SNC established a military bureau to aid rebel fighters on March 1.

“What you’ve seen is the international community mobilize against the Assad regime,” Obama told reporters yesterday at the White House. The U.S. will work with global partners to support the opposition, provide humanitarian assistance and continue pressing for the Syrian government’s political and economic isolation, he said.

U.S. Military Options

“It’s not a question of when Assad leaves,” Obama said. “He has lost the legitimacy of his people, and the action he is now taking against his own people is inexcusable, and the world community has said so in a more or less unified voice.”

While the U.S. is focusing on diplomatic means to end the violence in Syria, the administration is considering “all possible additional steps, including potential military options if necessary,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said today.

The Syrian government controls a “strong” military, Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding that differences within the opposition and the international community prevent a military intervention.

The lightly armed opposition Free Syrian Army can’t control the country’s largest population centers, the International Institute of Strategic Studies said today. Providing foreign assistance to the rebel army would be difficult, according to the London-based research institute, whose senior fellow for the Middle East, Toby Dodge, said the rebels are “no direct threat to the regime.”

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