Russia and China Block U.N. Action on Syrian Crisis

By: Neil MacFarquhar and Anthony Shadid

UNITED NATIONS — A United Nations Security Council effort to end the violence in Syria collapsed in acrimony and a veto by Russia and China on Saturday, hours after the Syrian military attacked the ravaged city of Homs in what opposition leaders described as the bloodiest government assault in the nearly 11-month-old uprising.

Anti-government protesters during the funeral of protesters killed in earlier clashes town of Daraya, near Damascus on Saturday.

The Security Council voted 13 to 2 in favor of a resolution backing an Arab League peace plan for Syria, but the measure was blocked by Russia and China, which opposed what they saw as a potential violation of Syria’s sovereignty.

Pressure had mounted on the Security Council to act as Syrian opposition leaders said more than 200 people were killed in the attack in Homs, and the White House accused Syria of having “murdered hundreds of Syrian citizens, including women and children.”

While the casualties were impossible to confirm, and were denied by Syria, reports of the bloodshed drew widespread international condemnation, and moved the Security Council toward a vote on an Arab League peace plan, despite new objections by Russia.

President Obama condemned what he called “the Syrian government’s unspeakable assault against the people of Homs,” saying in a statement that President Bashar al-Assad “has no right to lead Syria, and has lost all legitimacy with his people and the international community.”

The French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, said, “The massacre in Homs is a crime against humanity, and those responsible will have to answer for it.”

Protests broke out Saturday at Syrian embassies around the world, including in Egypt, Germany, Greece and Kuwait, and Tunisia expelled Syria’s ambassador there.

Security Council members met Saturday morning to try to resolve disagreements with Russia, Syria’s main ally, which had promised to veto any resolution that could open the way to foreign military intervention or insist on Mr. Assad’s removal.

But the resolution’s sponsors pushed the measure to a vote anyway, virtually daring Russia to exercise its veto and risk mounting international opprobrium for preventing action to stanch the escalating death toll in Syria. In the end, both Russia and China exercised vetoes.

Russia’s last-minute changes appeared to be another attempt to create equivalency between the Syrian government and the armed elements in the opposition, including by removing all the wording that detailed human rights violations by the Assad government.

Arab and Western ambassadors said they had compromised enough to meet the demands of Russia and other skeptics. The resolution that was defeated said that the Council “fully supports” the Arab League plan, which calls for Mr. Assad to cede power to his vice president and a unity government to lead Syria to democratic elections. But specific references to Mr. Assad’s ceding power and calls for a voluntary arms embargo and sanctions had been deleted from the Security Council resolution, and language barring outside military intervention was added.

Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that Moscow still had two objections to the latest revised resolution: that it did not place sufficient blame for the violence on the opposition, and that it unrealistically demanded that the government withdraw its military forces back to their barracks.

He told a security conference in Munich that adopting the current resolution would risk “taking sides in a civil war.”

But Security Council members, citing the killings in Homs, pointedly disagreed.

“The scandal is not to act,” Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the United Nations, said. “The scandal would be failure to act.”

There were contradictory reports on the violence from Homs, which has been largely inaccessible to journalists and difficult to reach by phone. But videos smuggled out of the city and reports by opposition activists described a harrowing barrage of mortar shells and gunfire that left hundreds more wounded in the city.

“It’s an unprecedented attack,” said Mohammed Saleh, an opposition activist from Homs who recently fled to a nearby town to escape the mounting strife.

The outrage intensified pressure on the Security Council to act, despite the fresh objections from Russia, Syria’s main ally, which had promised to veto any resolution that could open the way to foreign military intervention or insist on Mr. Assad’s removal.

The resolution said the Council “fully supported” the Arab League plan, which calls for Mr. Assad to cede power to his vice president and a unity government to lead Syria to democratic elections.

In an effort to placate Russia and other skeptics, Arab and Western ambassadors had already dropped specific references in the resolution to Mr. Assad’s ceding power and calls for a voluntary arms embargo and sanctions, and added language barring outside military intervention.

Mr. Lavrov said Saturday that Moscow still had two objections: that it did not place sufficient blame for the violence on the opposition, and that it unrealistically demanded that the government withdraw its military forces back to their barracks.

He told a security conference in Munich that adopting the current resolution would risk “taking sides in a civil war.” In a television interview quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency, he said that ignoring Russia’s objections would result in “another scandal.”

But Security Council members, citing the killings in Homs, pointedly disagreed.

“The scandal is not to act,” Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the United Nations, said. “The scandal would be failure to act.”

The resolution’s Western and Arab sponsors said they had compromised enough, and pushed the measure to a vote, virtually daring Russia to exercise its veto and risk mounting international opprobrium for preventing action to stanch the escalating death toll in Syria.

In the end, both Russia and China exercised vetoes.

There were contradictory reports on the violence from Homs, which has been largely inaccessible to journalists and difficult to reach by phone. But videos smuggled out of the city and reports by opposition activists described a harrowing barrage of mortar shells and gunfire that left hundreds more wounded in the city.

The Syrian National Council, which has sought to act as an umbrella group for the opposition, said more than 260 people had been killed. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the toll in Khaldiya and the other Homs neighborhoods was 217. Both groups, along with other activists, said hundreds were wounded.

One opposition activist said the Syrian military suffered casualties, too.

“It’s a real massacre in every sense of the word,” said a resident of the Khaldiya neighborhood, who gave his name as Abu Jihad. “I saw bodies of women and children lying on roads, beheaded. It’s horrible and inhuman. It was a long night helping people get to hospitals.”

The attack began, activists said, after Syrian Army defectors attacked two military checkpoints and captured soldiers. One activist put the number of abducted soldiers at 13, another 19. They suggested that enraged commanders then ordered the assault, which lasted from about 9 p.m. Friday to 1 a.m. Saturday, focusing on Khaldiya. Five other neighborhoods were also assaulted.

At one point, a resident said, people left the top floors of apartment buildings, fearful that shelling they described as random would wreck their homes. Another resident, reached by phone on Saturday, said that people had huddled in the dark, without water and electricity, and that checkpoints had proliferated around neighborhoods.

“After this, no one in the world can blame us for fighting, even if we have to use kitchen knives,” said a 40-year-old Homs resident who gave his name as Abu Omar.

Some residents, citing the defectors’ attack on the checkpoint, expressed reservations about the strategy. The mission of the defectors was to safeguard their neighborhoods, they said, not provoke the Syrian military.

“We don’t want a militarization of the revolution,” said an activist in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr who gave his name as Mahmoud. “we want them to protect us, not launch attacks.”

As it has since the uprising started, the Syrian government accused the news media and activists of fantastically exaggerating the toll. In a report on Saturday by the Syrian state news agency, SANA, it complained of “frenetic media campaigns against Syria disseminating false information about Syria Army shelling of civilians.”

The agency declared that “life is normal in the Damascus countryside, Hama and Homs.”

Homs, near the border with Lebanon , mirrors Syria’s own diversity, with a Sunni Muslim majority that has backed the uprising. But at least three neighborhoods are populated largely by Alawites, a heterodox strain of Islam that provides much of the leadership of Mr. Assad’s government.

In past months, sectarian strife there has dangerously mounted, offering a grim window on what a broader civil war could look like in Syria. Though protests started peacefully, defectors have begun operating checkpoints, and tit-for-tat kidnappings and killings have paralyzed parts of the city.

“The army has weapons, and the people have weapons,” one opposition activist said on condition of anonymity. “Syria is finished for me. It is a civil war, and nothing will save us anymore.”

After daybreak on Saturday, the town began burying its dead and a relative calm prevailed. At one funeral for 20 people, a resident said, armed defectors offered protection. The military tried to seal off some neighborhoods, and armed civilians guarded their own streets, residents said.

As reports of the mounting toll were carried by Twitter and Facebook, protests gathered at Syrian missions in the Middle East and Europe. As many as 100 demonstrators stormed the Syrian Embassy in Cairo at about 3 a.m. Saturday, tearing its iron gate off its hinges, burning parts of the first floor and demolishing much of the ambassador’s office. By the morning, the floors were littered with broken glass, furniture that had been torn apart or burned and the detritus of office equipment.

It was the second time in two weeks that protesters had breached the embassy.

Ammar Arsan, the embassy’s media counselor, said he saw no connection between the events in Homs and what he called “the terrorist attack” on the Cairo mission. “The Syrian Army is conducting an operation against terrorist groups in Hama and Homs,” he said. “This is a crime. Nothing in the whole world justifies this.”

The simultaneous attacks on Syrian Embassies in Germany, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere, he said, were evidence of coordination by Syria’s enemies.

Source: New York Times

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