The bloodiest massacre in Syria’s 17-month conflict along with the suspected movement of chemical weapons adds pressure on the United Nations Security Council to punish a regime that Russia has so far shielded.
The opposition Syrian National Council said as many as 305 people were killed in a July 12 assault on the Sunni Muslim village of Tremseh in Hama province. Separately, the Wall Street Journal cited unidentified U.S. officials as saying they are concerned about evidence that the Syrian government was moving some chemical weapons from storage sites for unknown reasons.
Both elements add urgency to a planned July 18 vote in New York on a Western-drafted Security Council resolution threatening President Bashar al-Assad with measures such as sanctions. Russia has said it will continue to use its veto to protect its Soviet-era ally, drawing attention to how ineffectual the international community has been in trying to resolve the longest of the Arab revolts.
“We have two significant developments and we cannot even get this passed?” Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a telephone interview. “There is no point in a resolution with no teeth, and even this doesn’t have much bite to it. How else can Assad be stopped?”
Government forces yesterday stormed neighborhoods in Deraa and used helicopters and heavy artillery in Deir al-Zour in the east of the country, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. Heavy fighting involving mortars and artillery also erupted in central Damascus late yesterday, it said.
The International Red Cross yesterday declared the Syrian conflict a civil war, a status that could facilitate prosecutions for war crimes, the Associated Press reported.
Time is running out 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 Russia withholding its veto.
“Tragically, we now have another grim reminder that the Council’s resolutions continue to be flouted,” Annan said in a letter addressed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and transmitted to the 15-member body. Action “is imperative and could not be more urgent in light of unfolding events.”
The assault on Tremseh began at dawn when Syrian troops surrounded the town of 10,000 residents, most of them Sunni Muslims, with 150 tanks and armored vehicles and started shelling, according to Syrian National Council member Abdulrahman Alhaj. Then soldiers, backed by the pro-government Shabiha militia, stormed the town for five hours, he said.
That version is challenged by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, which said the deaths were the result of a clash between security forces and “terrorist” groups -- as the government characterizes anti-regime fighters -- after local residents called for help.
There was no independent account, and the Associated Press reported local activists were reducing their death estimates.
UN observers made a second visit to Tremseh yesterday to investigate the July 12 military operations there, according to an e-mailed statement from the UN Supervision Mission in Syria. The observers’ operations have been largely suspended because of the danger posed to them.
Pools of blood and brain matter were found in some of the more than 50 houses that were burned or destroyed, according to the statement.
The team of observers still hasn’t been able to determine the number of casualties. Interviews with 27 local residents revealed that the attack started with a shelling of the village followed by ground operations.
The three-month mandate for the UN’s Syrian mission expires July 20. Russia seeks a 90-day extension with no strings attached. The U.S., France and the U.K. will agree to a rollover of 45 days only if measures with bite are taken against Assad.
The failure of the mission to help reduce violence in Syria has made the presence of peacekeepers unpopular. The Syrian National Council, a political umbrella for anti-government activists, said July 14 that it “ceases its cooperation with the Annan mission and calls on the Arab League and the United Nations to end the mission.”
Annan is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow ahead of the July 18 vote, Russian news agencies reported.
If Russia can’t be convinced to abstain, Annan will probably have to resign, leaving the international community virtually out of diplomatic options, according to Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at the New York University Center on International Cooperation.
Russia resists Western insistence on invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, a tool it accused the West of abusing last year to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. While Russia and China have twice blocked efforts by the U.S. and its European allies to punish Assad, the stakes in wielding a veto are now higher.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said reports of the latest massacre in Syria are “shocking and appalling” and urged the Security Council to agree on “urgent action.” Hague made the comments in a July 13 e-mailed statement.
“History will judge this Council,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a July 13 e-mailed statement. “Its members must ask themselves whether continuing to allow the Assad regime to commit unspeakable violence against its own people is the legacy they want to leave.”
The violence in Syria since the March 2011 start of the uprising against Assad has claimed more than 15,000 lives, according to aid agencies’ figures cited as credible by the UN.
New concerns about Syria’s stockpile of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide also adds a further dimension to conflict. The Wall Street Journal story on July 12 said it wasn’t clear if the chemicals were being moved with the intent to use them, as a feint or to better secure the weapons.
Syria’s cache of advanced weapons make “Libya look like an antique gun show,” said Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan who is chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “I am very concerned that as the situation in Syria deteriorates, these weapons could fall into the wrong hands,” such as al-Qaeda.