‘Heaviest shelling yet’ kills up to 100 in Homs

EU close to new Syria sanctions; CNN: US making contingency plans for military action.

Homs after bombardment 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Homs after bombardment 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian forces thrust into the rebellious city of Homs on Wednesday, killing as many as 100 civilians by the accounts of opposition activists, and Turkey appeared to be preparing a new diplomatic push against President Bashar Assad.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who is readying an initiative uniting Western, Arab and other states that have called for Ankara’s former ally Assad to step down – telephoned outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and afterward issued a statement repeating that Assad had lost “legitimacy.”
The Kremlin said Medvedev told Erdogan the search for a solution should continue, including in the Security Council, but foreign interference was not an option. The Turkish premier, who described the Russian and Chinese veto of the UN resolution over the weekend as a “fiasco,” faces a hard sell with Moscow.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has condemned Western “interference” of the kind seen last year in Libya as a “cult of violence.”
Putin – who first won the presidency after his military assault on the rebel Russian city of Grozny – is expected to return to the Kremlin via an election next month, in which the Russian leader accuses the West of aiding his opponents.
Moscow’s foreign minister, having visited Assad in Damascus on Tuesday, made clear Russia was still opposed to any peace talks that were conditional on Assad first stepping aside.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters a “friends of Syria” meeting could be held soon, but did not give details.
CNN reported on Wednesday that the US military is beginning to review its options on Syria. The report said the US Central Command – which is responsible for the Middle East – is beginning a “scoping exercise” to see which capabilities are available, given other US military commitments in the region.
Top military officials told CNN such planning exercises are typical for the Pentagon, which is tasked with providing options to the US president, if and when they are asked for.
The White House continued to stress it was not actively considering military intervention.
“We never rule anything out in a situation like this. But we are pursuing a path that includes isolating and pressuring the Assad regime so that it stops its heinous slaughtering of its own people,” Carney said.
James H. Anderson, an expert at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, said he believes the administration is still not seriously considering military action, and the Pentagon’s preparations are merely contingency planning.
“I’d take the Pentagon at their word – it’s their job to think of all the bad things that could happen,” Anderson told The Jerusalem Post from Germany.
“For its part, the administration has been saying it has absolutely no interest in such military activity. All that said, it’s possible that at least some of those options are likely to be considered with greater seriousness moving forward. The Assad regime seems to be baring its fangs in a way that will make it increasingly difficult for the US and its partners and European friends to not respond.”
In Brussels, a senior European diplomat said EU governments had reached an agreement in principle to impose sanctions on the Syrian central bank this month, as part of new measures intended to force Assad out of power.
The diplomat said details of the new sanctions were still being worked out, but the EU’s 27 capitals were behind the push, which should be formally approved by February 27.
“Obviously, details are crucial. But [EU] member states agree on the principle,” the diplomat said. “It is still a matter of discussion to what extent we can take such a measure without damaging overall trade, because it is not the intention to halt trade completely.”
He added that a European ban on trading with the Syrian government in phosphates, diamonds, gold and other precious metals was being planned. European countries buy 40 percent of Syrian phosphate exports.
The new sanctions, which are expected to be approved by EU foreign ministers at their next meeting, would follow several previous rounds targeting Assad’s government. In September, EU governments agreed to ban imports of Syrian crude.
Meanwhile, a newspaper close to the Turkish government said Ankara is planning to organize a conference with Arab and Western governments in Istanbul. A NATO member and rising Muslim power in the region, Ankara is sheltering Syrian rebel army commanders and has spoken of creating havens for refugees.
As the diplomatic gears turned, the military offensive in Homs and elsewhere showed no sign of let up.
Residents of the city told the BBC they were under the heaviest shelling yet. They also accused militiamen of slaughtering three families in their homes – the latest in a series of incidents fueling fears of a descent into more widespread, Iraq-style sectarian killing.
The onslaught on Homs, one of the bloodiest of the 11-month revolt against Assad, has not relented despite a promise to end the bloodshed that the Syrian leader gave to Russia, which saved Damascus from UN Security Council action on Saturday.
In the latest assault on Homs, troops fired rockets and mortars while tanks moved closer to Bab Amro, the district hardest hit by bombardments that are believed to have killed nearly 200 people in the past two days.
A group known as the Syrian Revolution General Commission called in a statement in the afternoon for outside humanitarian protection, and that the day’s death toll stood at 100.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said countries with influence over the Syrian opposition should press them to enter a dialogue with Assad.
Lavrov was speaking in Moscow a day after he met Assad in Damascus, where he said both nations wanted to revive an Arab League monitoring effort that was suspended due to violence.
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“It is not really the international community’s business to try to determine the outcome of national dialogue in advance,” he said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé dismissed Syrian pledges of peace as deceit, saying, “we’re not going to fall for it.”
For his part, Putin insisted Russia was acting in good faith, and said he was wary of Western motives in Syria: “We of course condemn all violence regardless of its source, but one cannot act like an elephant in a china shop,” he told Russian religious leaders.
“Help them, advise them, limit, for instance, their ability to use weapons but not interfere under any circumstances,” he said. “A cult of violence has been coming to the fore in international affairs in the past decade.”
Pro-Assad militiamen shot dead at least 20 civilians in Homs when they stormed their homes on the outskirts of opposition areas overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Activists said the unarmed victims were a family of five, one of seven and one of eight.
One activist said bombardment intensified in the early morning, targeting the Sunni districts of Bab Amro, al-Bayada, al-Khalidiya and Wadi al-Arab, all hostile to Assad, whose minority Alawite sect has dominated Syria for five decades.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd called in Syria’s chargé d’affaires, Jawdat Ali, on Wednesday and told him it was time for Assad to “find an exit strategy before the situation in Syria degenerates further and more lives are lost.”
Russia’s veto of the Security Council resolution on Syria went beyond protecting an ally and arms buyer, analysts said. It showed Moscow’s determination to crush what it sees as a Western crusade to use the United Nations to topple unfriendly governments.
The same holds true for China, which followed Russia’s lead and joined Moscow in striking down a European-Arab draft resolution that would have endorsed an Arab League plan for Assad to transfer power to his deputy to prepare free elections.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister said 11 kidnapped Iranians in Syria were released on Wednesday, but 18 others are still being held hostage.
“Luckily, efforts here have gained the release of 11 Iranians kidnapped and there are continued efforts to get the release of 11 other Iranian visitors who crossed into Syria by land,” Hossein Amir Abdollahian said. “Efforts are also ongoing to secure the release of seven engineers.”
Last month, Syrian rebels released video of seven men they said were Iranian soldiers aiding Assad’s crackdown.