Diplomats Jockey Over Assad’s Future as Syrian Troops Press Attacks Near
ar/index.html?inline=nyt-per> NEIL MacFARQUHAR and HWAIDA SAAD
Published: January 31, 2012
UNITED NATIONS — Syrian forces pushed rebels back from strongholds near
Damascus on Tuesday as some of the world’s top diplomats prepared at the
United Nations to try to press President
d/index.html?inline=nyt-per> Bashar al-Assad to leave office through a
Security Council resolution.
Much of the attention focused on
ssiaandtheformersovietunion/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> Russia, which stoutly
ague/index.html?inline=nyt-org> Arab League proposal, backed by Western and
Arab diplomats, that calls for Mr. Assad to cede power as part of a
transition to democracy.
As the diplomacy gathered pace, Moscow again renewed its opposition to the
Arab League plan, the Interfax news agency reported, quoting a senior
Russian diplomat as calling it “a path to civil war.”
“The Western draft Security Council resolution on
ria/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> Syria will not lead to a search for
compromise," Interfax quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as
saying, according to Reuters. “Pushing it is a path to civil war.”
Sharpening the diplomatic contest, the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppé,
told a radio station before flying to New York that events in Syria were a
“veritable scandal” and that President Assad had “blood on his hands”
On the ground, loyalist forces moved against two pockets of resistance on
the outskirts of Damascus, The Associated Press reported, offering a
military counterpoint to the diplomatic jockeying in New York.
“Intense shooting was heard in Zamalka and Arbeen as the tanks advanced,”
the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, according to The
A.P., citing sources on the ground. Regime forces made sweeping arrests in
the nearby town of Rankous, activists said.
On Monday, senior members of the Syrian National Council, an exile
opposition group, arrived in New York from Paris to lobby Security Council
members for the Arab League plan, starting with the Russian envoy, while the
United States and other members lambasted Moscow’s opposition.
“We have seen the consequences of neglect and inaction by this council over
the course of the last 10 months, not because the majority of the council
isn’t eager to act — it has been,” Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador,
“There have been a couple of very powerful members who have not been willing
to see that action take place,” she said, referring to Russia and China, who
vetoed the last attempt at a resolution in October. If negotiations fail
again this week, she said, the risk is “more violence and intensified
That prediction was already happening in
ria/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> Syria on Monday, as the Syrian Army besieged
several towns on the outskirts of Damascus that had been under rebel
control, activists there said.
North of the capital, government troops stormed Yabrud, which had been
surrounded for several days. Snipers took up positions on rooftops, and
checkpoints prevented people from entering or leaving. “The number of tanks
is unimaginable,” an activist there said. “They are shelling the street
Video posted on the Internet bolstered reports of new fighting in Homs, the
central Syrian city that has been the site of repeated battles between rebel
fighters and forces loyal to Mr. Assad.
“The army has the upper hand,” said Wissam Tarif, of the human rights group
Avaaz. “They have the tanks, the heavy machine guns, the warplanes, they
have everything. If they want to enter these towns, they can.”
The death toll on Monday was estimated in the dozens in a conflict that has
lasted 10 months and, according to the United Nations, caused more than
5,400 civilian deaths. Syria’s Interior Ministry said on Monday that it had
killed “big numbers of terrorists” in the eastern suburbs, according to the
state news agency. A nurse at a hospital in the area said dozens of members
of the security services had also been killed.
The Arab League suspended its monitoring mission in Syria over the weekend
because of the intractability of the fighting, and has called on the
Security Council to support a plan in which Mr. Assad would transfer power
to his vice president and a unity government would be formed to lead the
country to new elections.
Russia, Mr. Assad’s most important ally, says it opposes the plan because it
forces a change of leadership on a sovereign country. Moscow still feels
duped into supporting the United Nations resolution that led to the
overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, and is determined to prevent
At the same time, Russia has been eager to show that it is sincere about
pursuing a diplomatic solution, and said Monday that it had persuaded the
Assad government to participate in mediation talks in Moscow.
“In an attempt to contribute with the Syrians to a peaceful settlement
without foreign intervention and with respect to the sovereignty of Syria,
we have appealed to the Syrian government and to all opposition groups to
send their representatives to Moscow at a mutually acceptable time for
informal contacts without prior conditions,” the Russian Foreign Ministry
But the Syrian National Council immediately rejected the proposal unless Mr.
Assad stepped down first, a condition that Mr. Assad and Russia have said is
unacceptable. Given the escalating violence and the failure of mediation
efforts by the Arab League, the time for talks has passed, Syrian opposition
“We’re facing a big crisis that might lead us to civil war,” said Haytham
Manna, a prominent dissident. “We have areas where there is no control.
Sitting at the table of dialogue means going backwards.”
Behind closed doors in New York, negotiations over the proposed Security
Council statement were tense, Western diplomats said. India, Russia and
China were arguing over it line by line, they said.
The West is holding out hope that a briefing from Arab League leaders to the
Council on Tuesday will soften opposition to the resolution, with
negotiations over the text to resume in earnest on Wednesday.
In a display of the high level of Western interest in adopting a resolution,
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will represent the United States
at the meeting on Tuesday, along with the foreign ministers of France and
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to
discuss diplomatic efforts, said the United States and other council members
would force a veto if the Russians and Chinese resisted. “They can’t
continue to defend an unsustainable status quo,” the official said.
After meeting with the Russian United Nations envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin,
members of the Syrian National Council described the Russian position as
noncommittal about forcing Syria to accommodate opposition demands.
“The choice is going to be that if we want to do it with Russian help and
cooperation, we will have a peaceful process because they hold many keys,”
said Bassma Kodmani of the Syrian National Council. “If we don’t have
Russian cooperation we will have a more difficult and more costly process,
but ultimately we will get there without the Russians.”
But while the diplomats struggled to find consensus in New York, Syrian
forces continued to pound away at rebel positions.
A resident who gave his name as Abu Ahmad from Daraya, near the capital,
said that gunfire erupted continuously all day, with new troops and military
vehicles arriving all the time.
“We are scared,” he said. “We hear loud explosions and shooting. We don’t
know what is going to happen.”
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Received on Tue Jan 31 2012 - 07:56:04 EST