US, France hint at bolstering Syrian opposition

Clinton: Russian, Chinese obstructionism a ‘travesty’; Hezbollah vows it won’t let Assad fall; Russia’s Lavrov heads to Damascus tomorrow.

Clinton addresses UN Security Council_390 (photo credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)
Clinton addresses UN Security Council_390
(photo credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)
Western and Arab countries responded with outrage Sunday after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have backed an Arab plan urging Syrian President Bashar Assad to give up power.
The vote came a day after activists say Syrian forces bombarded the city of Homs, killing more than 200 people in the worst night of bloodshed of the 11-month uprising.
Human rights organizations reported on Sunday that over 50 people had been killed during the day by Syrian army forces.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France was consulting with Arab and European countries to create a contact group on Syria to find a solution to its crisis.
“France is not giving up,” Sarkozy said late Saturday, adding he was in touch with Arab and European partners to create a “Friends of the Syrian People Group” that would marshal international support to implement the Arab League plan.
Sarkozy did not give further details on the initiative, but last year he set up a Libya contact group to create a political roadmap backed by international players as part of efforts to oust Muammar Gaddafi. Western powers have ruled out a Libya-style military intervention in Syria.
Russia said Saturday’s resolution was biased and would have meant taking sides in a civil war. Syria is Moscow’s rare ally in the Middle East, home to a Russian naval base and a customer for its arms.
China’s veto was widely seen as following Russia’s lead.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before Saturday’s vote for what US officials called “vigorous” talks.
Lavrov said he would travel to Syria on Tuesday along with Foreign Intelligence Service Director Mikhail Fradkov for talks with Assad.
Lavrov revealed nothing about their purpose, but a Foreign Ministry statement on Sunday indicated he and Fradkov would at least press Assad to make compromises.
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“What happened yesterday at the United Nations was a travesty,” Clinton said on Sunday. “Those countries that refused to support the Arab League plan bear full responsibility for protecting the brutal machine in Damascus.”
She added: “Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.”
Clinton also said Washington would work with other nations to try to tighten “regional and national” sanctions “to dry up the sources of funding and the arms shipments that are keeping the regime’s war machine going.
“We will work to expose those who are still funding the regime and sending it weapons that are used against defenseless Syrians, including women and children,” she said. “We will work with the friends of a democratic Syria around the world to support the opposition’s peaceful political plans for change.”
Clinton did not give further details on which nations might band together, or precisely what they might do, but it appeared that the United States might seek to organize a “Friends of Syria” group to act together given the inability to make progress at the United Nations because of Russia and China.
An official from Assad’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, said the extremist group is prepared to attack Israel if Western powers interfere in Syria.
The unnamed official told Kuwait’s Al-Rai newspaper “Hezbollah won’t allow Assad and his regime to fall, even if the price is a military confrontation with Israel.”
“Hezbollah supports a compromise solution with the current Syrian regime, not without it,” he added. “This would come through a solution based on reforms that would satisfy the regime and opposition, while also returning security to the country.”
Israel has said Hezbollah and its patron Iran are providing weapons to Assad to help in the crackdown. Hezbollah is believed to own over 30,000 missiles, some of which can reach as far as Tel Aviv.
Speaking on Hezbollah’s Al- Manar television late Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said any military intervention in Syria would lead to a regional “explosion.”
“I’m confident any military action against Syria will blow up the entire region... a military intervention does not solve any problem, especially because the Syrian situation differs from that of Libya.”
Salehi said Syria’s “sole role is fighting Israel,” and that Damascus “is now paying the price for its resistance.”
“Assad’s fall is inevitable – there’s no way this tyrant can survive,” said Iranian-born journalist and blogger Saba Farzan. Still, she said, “each day that passes without strong action against the butcher Assad and his regime means more innocent victims among the Syrian people.”
“After losing its only Arab ally it’ll be the Islamic Republic that is doomed to fall, as well,” she told The Jerusalem Post from Germany.
On the ground in Syria, residents of Homs’s-battered Baba Amro district denounced the Russian-Chinese veto, with some chanting, “Death rather than disgrace.” One resident said, “Now we will show Assad. We’re coming, Damascus.
Starting today we will show Assad what an armed gang is.” Assad has called his opponents “armed gangs” and “terrorists” steered from abroad.
If activists’ accounts are accurate, the bombardment of Homs on Friday night was one of the bloodiest episodes of the Arab uprisings, and the deadliest incident in the Syrian conflict.
Syrian activist groups gave varying tolls above 200 killed, saying tanks and artillery blasted the Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs, a restive city that has become a heartland of resistance to Assad’s rule.
Activist Omar Shakir, in the Baba Amro district of Homs, said there was new shelling on Sunday afternoon and three people had been killed.
Also Sunday, Syria’s highestlevel army defector said the military’s unity is severely undermined, and could collapse in a matter of weeks.
“The army will collapse during February,” Gen. Mustafa al- Sheikh told Britain’s Daily Telegraph.
“The reasons are the shortage of Syrian army personnel, which even before March 15 last year did not exceed 65 percent. The proportion of equipment that was combatready did not exceed that, due to a shortage of spare parts.”
Diplomatic condemnations against Russia and China came from virtually all quarters.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said Moscow and Beijing had turned their backs on the Arab world, and his French counterpart Alain Juppe said they “carried a terrible responsibility in the eyes of the world and Syrian people.”
All 13 other members of the Security Council voted to back the resolution, which would have “fully supported” an Arab League plan under which Assad should cede powers to a deputy, withdraw troops from towns, and begin a transition to democracy.
The Western criticism was echoed in the Middle East, where Arab powers like Saudi Arabia and non-Arab Turkey have turned decisively against Assad in recent months.
“Unfortunately, yesterday in the UN the Cold War logic continues,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
“Russia and China did not vote based on the existing realities but more a reflexive attitude against the West.”
Arab League head Nabil Elaraby said the body still intends to build support for its plan. The veto “does not negate that there is clear international support for the resolutions of the Arab League,” he said in a statement.
The Security Council’s sole Arab member, Morocco, voiced “great regret and disappointment” at the veto. Ambassador Mohammed Loulichki said the Arabs had no intention of abandoning their plan.
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition umbrella Syrian National Council, called Moscow and Beijing’s veto “a new license to kill from these two capitals for Bashar Assad and his criminal regime, which just yesterday killed 300 people.”
The SNC said it held Moscow and Beijing “responsible for the escalating acts of killing and genocide.” Protesters stormed Russia’s embassy in Libya’s capital Tripoli on Sunday, climbing on the roof and tearing down the flag.
Men held up a banner saying: “Libyan revolutionaries are ready to fight with their brothers in Syria.”
Russia’s UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, accused the resolution’s backers of “calling for regime change, pushing the opposition towards power and not stopping their provocations and feeding armed struggle.”
“Some influential members of the international community – unfortunately, including those sitting around this table – from the very beginning of the Syrian process have been undermining the opportunity for a political settlement,” he said. Moscow is sending Foreign Minister Lavrov to Damascus on Tuesday.
Syrian UN envoy Bashar Ja’afari criticized the resolution and its sponsors, which included Saudi Arabia and seven other Arab states, saying nations “that prevent women from attending a soccer match” had no right to preach democracy to Syria.
He also denied that Syrian forces killed hundreds of civilians in Homs, saying “no sensible person” would launch such an attack the night before the Security Council was set to discuss his country.
State television showed live footage of Assad on Sunday praying with Sunni clerics and listening to Koranic verses in a Damascus mosque to mark the birthday of Islam’s prophet Muhammad.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.