As violence in Damascus intensifies, Russia dealt a potential death blow to international efforts to end an 18-month conflict by using its veto at the United Nations for the third time to shield President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia, whose ties with Syria date to the Soviet era, and China today blocked a Security Council resolution threatening sanctions on the Syrian regime unless Assad complied in 10 days with a UN peace plan he has flouted until now.
As diplomatic avenues on Syria reached a dead end, Syrian security forces loyal to Assad pounded rebel hideouts in Damascus today in retaliation for yesterday’s blast that killed three of Assad’s top deputies fighting the insurgency. With the UN’s decision-making body powerless to take action, Assad’s fate will probably be decided on the Syrian streets amid apprehension over whether he’ll unleash chemical weapons on his opponents.
“The potential for this regime to consider using chemical weapons against its own people should be a concern for us all,” U.S. ambassador envoy Susan Rice told the council.
Labeling Russia’s veto “dangerous and deplorable,’ the top American diplomat at the UN said the scene was set for a “proxy war that could engulf the region.”
Syria has a stockpile of sarin nerve agent, mustard gas and cyanide, in what is probably the largest and most advanced chemical warfare program in the Arab world.
Other governments in the region have used chemical weapons against domestic opponents -- Yemen during its civil war in the 1960s, and Iraq against Kurdish and Shiite rebels in 1988 and 1991, so such a scenario isn’t implausible in Syria, Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said in a research paper this week.
Russia will be perceived as “having direct responsibility if he uses chemical weapons or unleashes more firepower from the air,” said George Lopez, a former UN sanctions investigator who now teaches at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
Western diplomats today attacked Russia for putting first its historic links and economic interests with Assad. Syria is an arms customer and hosts Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union in the port of Tartus.
“The effect of their actions is to protect a brutal regime,” U.K. Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant told the council after the vote. “They have chosen to put their national interests ahead of the lives of millions of Syrians.”
U.S. President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said the double veto puts Russia and China on the “wrong side of history.” Traveling with Obama to Florida, he told reporters “it’s a mistake prop up that regime as it comes to an end.”
Countering that criticism, Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin accused the U.S. and its European allies of refusing to exclude military intervention from its “biased” draft resolution and “pushing its own geopolitical designs.”
The Western-drafted resolution specifically called for non-military measures such as an embargo on supplying arms to the Syrian military and the freezing of assets.
At least 77 people were killed across Syria today, including 38 people in Damascus and its suburbs, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria said in an e-mail. It said at least 130 people were killed in the shelling of a funeral yesterday in the Sayyeda Zainab area on the outskirts of Damascus.
“It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria, and the escalations we have witnessed in Damascus over the past few days is a testimony to that,” said Major General Robert Mood, commander of the UN observer mission in Syria.
About 300 unarmed peacekeepers are set to return soon from Syria after a UN monitoring mission that failed to quell escalating violence in a country torn by a civil war pitting majority Sunni Muslims against a leadership class drawn from the Alawite minority affiliated with Shiite Islam.
The Security Council is poised to vote tomorrow on a 30-day extension of the mission. The U.S. has objected to keeping monitors in the country because they are unable to carry out the job they were given and because of the risks they run.
In the capital of Damascus, Assad’s power base, Syrian troops used helicopters and heavy artillery against the rebels, while snipers took up positions on rooftops on the outskirts of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement. “Explosions are heard throughout the capital,” it said.
“The regime has gone mad,” Rima Flaihan, spokeswoman for the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, said in a telephone interview today from Jordan. “The regime is in a horrid state of savagery, seeking revenge for the killings of the military leaders.”
The explosion yesterday targeted members of Assad’s military establishment as they met at the national security headquarters in Damascus. Three people were killed, according to state-run media: Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat; Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah; and the vice president’s military adviser, Hasan Turkmani. Other officials including the interior minister were injured, state television said. Shawkat served as deputy defense minister and deputy chief of staff for security.
They were the most senior officials to die since the uprising began in March 2011.
State-run Syrian television aired the first footage of Assad more than 24 hours after the attack. Dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, he greeted the new defense minister and attended his swearing-in. The broadcast didn’t indicate where the brief ceremony took place. By late today, state media hadn’t aired footage of the attack as is customary when such bombings occur.
Rebel fighters, mostly armed with light weapons, have been pushing into the capital this week and battling government forces armed with tanks, artillery and attack helicopters.
The fighters are mostly led by Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of Syria’s population. Assad and many of his top officials come from the country’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam that stands to lose privileges, property and even lives if his regime falls.
The Free Syrian Army, a loose collection of deserters and armed youths, claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack.
“The person who carried out the operation is in a safe place now, and he is a person very close to the regime,” Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, told Al Jazeera. “It was not a suicide mission, just explosives that were placed in a small room.”