Bloomberg News

Syria Troops Fight Outside Damascus Before UN Meeting

January 31, 2012

(Updates with comment from opposition leader in second paragraph.)

Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian troops battled for control of rebel-held suburbs of Damascus ahead of a United Nations Security Council meeting to address an Arab proposal to end the crisis.

In New York, Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, today said the Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad won’t enter into negotiations with the regime until Assad steps down.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European foreign ministers will attend tomorrow’s Security Council meeting to support an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step down in favor of a national unity government.

“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the escalation of the Syrian regime’s violent and brutal attacks on its own people,” Clinton said in a statement today. She said that tomorrow “the international community should send a clear message of support to the Syrian people: We stand with you.”

The government sent tanks and armored vehicles into the areas yesterday, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Forty-one people were killed yesterday, Abdel Rahman said.

The violence has left more than 5,000 dead since the uprising against Assad began in March and has intensified since the Arab League halted its observer mission last week.

Russian Resistance

Eleven months into the unrest, the European Union and the U.S. have yet to overcome Russia’s resistance at the UN’s decision-making body to hold Assad responsible for the crackdown. His government has blamed “terrorists” and foreign provocateurs for fomenting the protests.

“We believe the United Nations must act to support the people of Syria and Russia can no longer explain blocking the UN and providing cover for the regime’s brutal repression,” U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokeswoman, Vickie Sheriff, told reporters in London today.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Syria’s government agreed to hold talks with the country’s opposition in Moscow. Russia is waiting for a response from opponents of Assad, the ministry said in a statement published on its website today.

Ghalioun said he met this morning with Russia’s ambassador at the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, and said the Russians are “cleary unhappy” with his position.

Syria Blames ‘Terrorists’

Clashes between government forces and the Free Syrian Army, made up of defectors and armed civilians, have been ongoing for three to four days in the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Saqba, Harasta, Irbin and Zamalka, Merei said.

An “armed terrorist group” attacked a pipeline transporting gas between Homs and Banias, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported today.

At least 35 people were killed today in the central city of Homs, the northern province of Idlib and southern province of Daraa, where the revolt against Assad began in mid-March, Abdel Rahman said. More than 100 people died in clashes Jan. 27, the bloodiest day since the uprising started in March, Al Jazeera reported, citing activists.

The Syrian government controls access to the country for journalists and the death tolls cited by activists aren’t independently verifiable.

A draft council resolution backs the transition plan put forward by the Arab League calling for a national unity government within two months to implement a handover of power. Syria said it was surprised by the decision to halt the Arab League mission after the country agreed to allow the observers to stay for another month, SANA reported, citing an unidentified government official.

Proposal Rejected

Syria has rejected the Arab League proposal, saying it infringes on the country’s sovereignty, while Russia has opposed Security Council efforts to take action against Syria.

“The momentum has stalled, Russia is still there blocking the way for a condemnation that could lead to intervention and the international community is disorganized on this and nobody wants to lead the way,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

“Syria sees this disorganization and they’re cracking down with greater force now to try and quell the demonstrations,” Landis added. “The situation is leading to greater conflict, Syria is deeply divided and the international community’s cavalry is not going to ride in there.”

--With assistance from Mourad Haroutunian in Riyadh, Henry Meyer in Moscow, Thomas Penny in London, Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations, Gregory Viscusi in Paris, Dahlia Kholaif in Kuwait and Zaid Sabah Abd Alhamid, Ian Katz, Nadeem Hamid and Nicole Gaouette in Washington. Editors: Digby Lidstone, Louis Meixler, Ben Holland, Terry Atlas.

To contact the reporters on this story: Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon at mderhally@bloomberg.net; Glen Carey in Dubai at gcarey8@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net


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