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Syrian rebel fighters retreated from the city of Homs as government troops overran the center of anti-regime resistance after almost a month of artillery bombardment, according to reports by the Washington Post.
The Syrian military offensive came as the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that Syria had given it permission to enter Homs, under its 27th day of bombardment, to deliver supplies and evacuate the wounded. Troops were moving through the city’s Bab Amr neighborhood detaining all males older than 15, according to opposition activists cited by the Post.
Hours earlier, the United Nations Security Council issued its first unified statement on Syria in seven months, demanding that President Bashar al-Assad allow access for humanitarian aid. The Security Council statement was backed by Russia, possibly signaling a shift from its steady defense of Assad.
President Vladimir Putin told a British newspaper his country has no special relationship with Assad and Syrians should decide who leads them. Russia yesterday also backed a Security Council statement deploring “the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation.” The non-binding measure avoided citing the Syrian regime as responsible for the “growing number of affected civilians.”
Earlier in the day, Russia voted against a resolution in the UN’s top human rights body in Geneva which condemned the Syrian government’s “widespread and systematic violations of human rights.” Russia has twice joined China since October in vetoing a binding Security Council resolution censuring Assad’s regime.
Russia’s stance on Syria is “a key element of how this goes forward,” said Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. The Russians “can use their influence inside Syria to be part of the solution,” he said.
Feltman, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he had recently visited Moscow to discuss Syria and got the sense that “there was a lot of discomfort” with Russia’s isolation on the issue.
Feltman said the analysis in Moscow about Assad is not that different from the U.S. assessment. Yet Russia has been ignoring its own best interests in continuing to back Assad, Feltman said.
“It seems to us that Russia is not going to preserve those interests that it deems important if it rides the Assad Titanic all the way to the bottom of the Mediterranean,” he said.
Putin told the London-based Times in an interview that “we need to make sure they stop killing each other.” The Times cited Putin as saying “we only have interest in the conflict being resolved.”
The French government announced the successful evacuation of two journalists who had been wounded in the siege of Homs. Edith Bouvier and William Daniels were being cared for at the French embassy in Beirut after several days of being trapped in the Syrian city, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a statement.
Juppe expressed “enormous joy” and said those who risked their lives to save the journalists had “France’s gratitude.”
Even as rebels announced a tactical retreat from Homs, the Syrian National Council, the main opposition alliance, said it is establishing a military bureau to aid the rebel Free Syrian Army. Mustafa Hamitoglu, an Istanbul-based member of the council, said the deadlock at the UN raised the risk of civil war.
“So long as the deadlock continues, there’s always a risk of civil war, and the responsibility for that won’t be SNC’s alone, but also of those who don’t support the Free Syrian Army and block solutions,” Hamitoglu said by telephone. “The opposition has reached a point where it’s beginning to believe that the situation can only be resolved by taking up arms.”
The head of the Syrian Free Army, Colonel Riad al-As’ad, rejected the national council’s military office plan, saying there will not be any coordination between the two opposition groups.
“The initial position is we will not deal with this office, because we lack the knowledge of its goals and strategies,” he said on Al Jazeera television.
In the U.S. Senate hearing, lawmakers expressed their concern about the opposition’s difficulty cooperating.
“At present, the Syrian opposition lacks cohesion and a sufficiently defined political agenda,” said the senior Republican on the foreign relations panel, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. “As a practical matter, it also lacks the physical space and technical means to mature, overcome its internal differences, and develop a plan for a democratic transition.”
Senator John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said there is discussion among U.S. lawmakers and among leaders in the region about whether and how to support the opposition. He also expressed concern about the opposition’s organizational shortcomings.
“It’s time to redouble our efforts to engage with Syria’s political opposition to try to shape their thinking and strongly encourage them to coalesce into a coherent political force,” Kerry said.
The U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told the senators that probably won’t happen soon.
“It’s a reach to think they’re going to unify soon,” Ford said of the opposition. The questions are whether they can “unite around a vision and can they unite around a transition plan,” he said.
The opposition, which is now a fragmented set of groups inside and outside Syria, doesn’t need to unite into a single group, Ford said, “but they do need to unite” behind a goal.
In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council resolution approved yesterday was proposed by Turkey, with 37 votes in favor and three -- Russia, China and Cuba -- voting against. Three members of the 47-nation body abstained and four didn’t vote.
The resolution “sends a forceful message about the international community’s outrage,” said Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. representative to the council. The three countries that chose to vote ‘no’ “find themselves isolated from the strong international consensus on the need to protect the people of Syria.”
The Security Council statement issued in New York by the U.K. mission, called upon “the Syrian authorities to allow immediate, full and unimpeded access of humanitarian personnel to all populations in need of assistance, in accordance with international law and guiding principles of humanitarian assistance.”
Such a statement by the president of the Security Council is weaker than a resolution adopted by the 15-member council, the policy arm of the world body.
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