New UN draft resolution on Syria

Reuters , Saturday 24 Dec 2011

World powers argue over the details of a UN resolution on Syria after suicide car bombs that killed 44 in Damascus lent a grim new face to the conflict

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Kafranbel, near Adlb, December 23, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

European and US officials want the Security Council to impose an arms embargo and other sanctions on Syria's government because of its nine-month-old crackdown on protesters, which UN officials say has killed thousands.

Western powers say government security forces have been responsible for most of the violence. But Russia, an old ally of Damascus, wants any resolution to be even-handed.

"If the requirement is that we drop all reference to violence coming from extreme opposition, that's not going to happen," U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said in New York after Russia submitted a revised draft resolution to the council.

"If they expect us to have arms embargo, that's not going to happen," he said. "We know what arms embargo means these days. It means that - we saw it in Libya - that you cannot supply weapons to the government but everybody else can supply weapons to various opposition groups."

German Ambassador Peter Wittig said the latest Russian draft did not go far enough.

"We need to put the weight of the council behind the Arab League," he said.

"That includes the demands to release political prisoners, that includes a clear signal for accountability for those who have perpetrated human rights violations."

The first batch of 50 Arab League monitors will head to Syria on Monday to assess whether Damascus is abiding by an Arab peace plan, Egypt's state news agency reported on Friday.

Sudanese general Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi will lead the mission, the agency said.

The suicide bombs, aimed at two security buildings, sent human limbs flying and streets in Syria's capital were littered with human remains and the blackened hulk of cars.

President Bashar al-Assad has used tanks and troops to try to crush nine months of street protests inspired by other Arab uprisings this year. Such mainly peaceful rallies are now increasingly eclipsed by an armed insurgency against his security apparatus.

But Friday's blasts signalled a dramatic escalation.

"It's a new phase. We're getting militarised here," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who felt Friday's bombs were a "small premonition" of what may come in a country that some analysts see slipping towards civil war.

"This is when the Syrian opposition is beginning to realise they are on their own," he added, referring to Western reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria.

The interior ministry spokesman said 166 people were wounded by the explosions. It broadcast footage of mangled bodies being carried in blankets and stretchers into ambulances a row of corpses wrapped in sheets lying in the street.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi said the attacks were carried out by "terrorists (trying) to sabotage the will for change" in Syria, and followed warnings from Lebanon that al Qaeda fighters had infiltrated Syria from Lebanese territory.

The United States condemned the attacks, saying there was "no justification for terrorism of any kind" and that the work of the Arab League should not be hindered.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Al Qaeda are Sunni Muslim militants. Assad and Syria's power elite belong to the Alawite branch of Shiite Islam while the majority of Syrians, including protesters and insurgents, are Sunnis.

"I'm defending my people," Ali, 45, an Alawite factory worker issued by police with a gun which he has used against protesters in the city of Homs, said in comments passed on to Reuters.

"We can't let them topple the regime, they'll go after us and kill us all."

Some of Assad's opponents said the suicide attack could have been staged by the government itself.

Syria has generally barred foreign media from the country, making it hard to verify accounts of events from either side.

The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed more than 5,000 people in their crackdown on the protests, which erupted in March instigated by uprisings that have toppled autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya over the course of the year.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 15 civilians were killed outside the capital on Friday, eight of them in Homs.

The Arab League peace plan stipulates a withdrawal of troops from protest-hit cities and towns, release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.

Damascus says more than 1,000 prisoners have been freed since the Arab plan was agreed and the army has pulled out of cities. Anti-Assad activists say no such pullout has occurred.

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