Proposal for Syria peacekeepers finds few takers

Russia balks, West hesitant after Arab League suggests joint mission with UN; 10-day death toll in Homs exceeds 300.

Syrian demonstrate against Assad 390 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian demonstrate against Assad 390 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An Arab League proposal to boost support for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad and send in foreign peacekeepers drew a guarded international response on Monday and showed little sign of halting the bloodshed anytime soon.
Russia, Assad’s close ally and main arms supplier, said it could not support a peacekeeping mission unless both sides ceased the violence first.
Some felt the moves might only fan the flames of war.
“We feel the decisions are taking a grave turn for Syria and for the region,” Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said in Beirut.
Other observers said it was just the start of a long and complex process to resolve what is potentially the most dangerous of the Arab uprisings.
On the battlefront, Syrian government forces bombarded rebellious districts of Homs and attacked other cities in their campaign to crush opposition to Assad’s 11-year rule.
Mortar rounds and tank fire pounded Baba Amro district but casualties could not be tallied because communication was cut off.
Activists said 23 people were killed on Sunday, adding to a toll of more than 300 since the assault on Homs, strategically located on the highway between the capital Damascus and second city Aleppo, began on February 3.
In New York, the UN high commissioner for human rights said the failure of the Security Council to pass a resolution on Syria has encouraged the government there to continue its “indiscriminate attack” on Homs.
“The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force,” Navi Pillay told the General Assembly.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Syrians living in areas hit by the conflict are now struggling to find even basic foodstuffs.
“The situation has been increasingly violent and it hasn’t been easy for people to do anything. The streets are empty, people can’t go anywhere to buy food. There is even a problem getting bread,” an ICRC official said.
World powers are digesting Arab League proposals from a meeting in Cairo on Sunday that called for a joint United Nations-Arab peacekeeping force for Syria and pledged to provide political and material aid to the opposition.
The plan faces many obstacles. Foreign governments are divided over how to resolve the crisis and Russia and China already vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Syria on February 4 that called for Assad to step down.
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear Russia would not support the peacekeeping plan unless there was a halt to violence by both government forces and their armed opponents. He suggested the latter would be tough to achieve.
UN peace missions “need to first have a peace to support,” Lavrov told a news conference.
“The tragedy is that the armed groups that are confronting the forces of the regime are not subordinate to anyone and are not under control,” he said, adding that the opposition had “modern guns, mortars and grenade launchers and also sow death.”
“A halt to the violence must be universal,” he said.
China backed what it termed the Arab League’s “mediation” but offered no clear sign of support for the peacekeeper call.
“Relevant moves by the United Nations should be conducive towards lessening tension in Syria... rather than complicating things,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
The United States and Europe are reluctant to get dragged in militarily, fearing that given Syria’s position in the Middle East’s religious, ethnic and political fault lines, this would be more risky and complicated than the NATO-led air support that helped Libyan rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi last year.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague reflected that caution, saying any peacekeeping troops in Syria should come from non-Western countries.
“I don’t see the way forward in Syria as being Western boots on the ground in any form, including in any peacekeeping form,” he told reporters on a visit to South Africa.
France was unenthusiastic about sending in foreign troops.
“We think that any external military intervention would only make the situation worse,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
A peacekeeping mission would in any case require the cooperation of Syria, which dismissed the League’s resolution as a “hostile act that targets Syria’s security and stability.”
The fragmented nature of the opposition to Assad is also a problem for those keen on political change in Syria.
The Arab League effort also highlighted regional rivalries.
Its moves have been driven by Saudi Arabia and other Sunniruled Gulf monarchies who have long resented Assad’s close ties to Shi’ite regional rival Iran.
It hinged on convincing Russia it must eventually give up its support for Assad and bringing the opposition together.
Analysts say Assad’s downfall could still be far off. The unrelenting assaults on opposition strongholds show his determination to crush his foes and resist reforms other than on his own terms, they say.
Reports have also emerged of increasing weapons supplies from Iraq, where for years the Assad regime armed and supplied insurgents against US-led coalition forces.
“We have intelligence information that a number of Iraqi jihadists went to Syria,” Iraq’s deputy interior minister Adnan al-Assadi told the AFP news agency.
Citing an unnamed U.S. officials, a reporter for McClatchy newspapers reported this week that the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida had out two recent bombings in Damascus and may have been behind suicide bombings Friday that killed at least 28 people in Aleppo. Those reports remain unconfirmed.
In Homs, government troops concentrated their fire on Baba Amro in the south and al-Waer in the west, which borders the Military College, a main assembly point for tanks and government troops, opposition campaigners said.
Activist Hassan Said al-Waer, scene of large pro-democracy demonstrations for months, had come under attack in the last several days from pro-Assad militia known as shabbiha.
“We heard that the Free Syrian Army has started responding by attacking roadblocks being manned by shabbiha.
Communications with al- Waer have been cut off and the sound of shelling can be now heard,” he said.
The Free Syrian Army, led by military defectors, has taken the central role in armed opposition to the Assad government.
On Sunday armor-backed troops raided the al-Inshaat district of Homs. Tanks ran over civilian cars and troops ransacked houses and burned furniture in the streets as collective punishment, the Coalition of Free Homs said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shelling had also started up again on the city of Rastan in Homs province.
Government forces had made failed attempts to storm Rastan at dawn from its southern entrance. Rebels destroyed an armored vehicle and killed three soldiers, the Observatory said.

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In the city of Hama, 50 km. north of Homs, government forces backed by tanks and armored vehicles killed at least one man when they raided neighborhoods on Sunday near the countryside where the Free Syrian Army has been active.
“It is the third day of such incursions. They fire heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns at random, then they go in and raid houses and arrest dozens of people,” an activist said from Hama.