Evidence gathered by UN investigators in Syria shows human rights violations, including executions “on an alarming scale”, according to a new report on a conflict that is spiralling into “deeper and more destructive violence” and in which sectarian motives now predominate.
Against a background of escalating bloodshed and global concern, with gunmen killing seven on Wednesday at a pro-regime TV station near Damascus, the foreign ministers of the world’s leading powers have been invited to meet in Geneva on Saturday in a desperate attempt to agree a political exit from the impasse.
On Tuesday, president Bashar al-Assad ratcheted up his own language by describing the crisis as “a real war” and pledged to do everything necessary to prevail. Assad had previously always blamed the uprising on “armed terrorist gangs” backed by the west and Arab countries.
Underlining the gravity of the situation, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described the last week as the bloodiest yet in the 16-month uprising. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said 916 people had been killed from 20 to 26 June. On Tuesday alone the reported death toll was 113, though these figures cannot be independently verified. Tank fire was reported from al-Qusair near Homs. Other attacks by government forces were reported on Wednesday in Deraa and Zamalka.
Kofi Annan, Syria envoy for the UN and the Arab League, said he had invited the five permanent members of the UN security council with Turkey and three Arab states to the Geneva conference, but there was no mention of Iran. Its presence was opposed by the US and UK, which warned they would not attend if Iran did.
Saudi Arabia, financing the fighters of the Syria Free Army, was also conspicuously left off the guest list to balance the absence of the Iranians, diplomats said.
The novelty of this event will be participation by Russia and China, which have vetoed action against Assad at the UN and shunned the western-Arab Friends of Syria grouping on the grounds that it is working against the Assad regime.
It is unclear, however, whether Moscow will accept the western view that Assad must step aside in favour of a transitional national unity government. Russia has always insisted it would not countenance regime change in Damascus. Britain’s foreign secretary, Wiliam Hague, said the meeting “must agree principles for a political transition.” Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said she hoped it could be a “turning point.”
If it is not, said officials in Washington and London, there will be renewed pressure to return to the security council to consider punitive measures.
Wednesday’s bomb and gun assault on al-Ikhbariya TV, south of the capital, was seen as further evidence of bolder tactics by armed anti-Assad rebels. It followed an opposition attack on the elite Republican Guard on the outskirts of Damascus on Tuesday. Al-Ikbhariya is privately owned but has been a loyal mouthpiece for the regime. The attack was condemned by the Syrian government and by journalists and activists. Amnesty International said:”Even a media organisation engaged in propaganda is still a civilian object, so it and those working for it must never be deliberately targeted.”
Annan’s deputy, Jean-Marie Guehenno, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that violence across the country now matched or surpassed levels seen before the start of the notional ceasefire on 12 April. “Time is running out,” he warned. “Syria is spiralling into deeper and more destructive violence.”
Annan said in a statement that the new Action Group for Syria would identify steps and measures to secure full implementation of his failing six-point plan, including “an immediate cessation of violence in all its forms.” It should, he added “also agree on guidelines and principles for a Syrian-led political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people; and agree on actions that will make these objectives a reality on the ground.”
Investigators for the UN Human Rights Council reported that they were unable to determine who carried out a massacre of more than 100 people in Houla near Hama in May — an event which galvanised international attention — but it said that “forces loyal to the government may have been responsible for many of the deaths.”
“As a result of the reported flow of new weapons and ammunitions both to the government forces and to the anti-government armed groups, the situation risks becoming more aggravated in the coming months,” said the report’s author, Paulo Pinheiro.
Syria’s representative to the council, Faisal al-Hamwi, claimed there was a “global conspiracy” against Syria.
Russian diplomat Vassily Nebenzia said rebels were carrying out daily attacks on infrastructure and killing civilians. “Gunmen have been carrying out terrorist acts on Syrian cities. Such activities … are being fed with money and weapons from abroad,” he said.
The US ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe said: “The evidence is incontrovertible. The Assad regime is waging a brutal campaign against the Syrian people, characterised by aerial bombardment, mass killings, rape and other atrocities.”