July 24 2014 Latest news:
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
The United Nations security council is not a body renowned for being nimble, weighed down as it is by a planet’s worth of competing interests.
But there was a rare moment of agility yesterday after weekend reports of a horrendous atrocity in Houla, Syria.
The town is 15 miles north-east of Homs, the city at the forefront of uprisings against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, but became the centre of world attention when 100 people were killed there including 32 children.
Pictures posted on-line showed children’s bloodied bodies lined up; some killed by artillery fire, others shot at close range and stabbed.
Given that only government forces have heavy weapons, there appeared to be clear evidence of at least some involvement by those acting under orders from the Assad regime.
Syrian Ambassador to the UN Bashar Ja’afari branded the accusations a “tsunami of lies”, but yesterday morning it emerged that a security council statement had been drafted condemning the attacks.
The quick response was encouraging. What was unexpected by those calling for a harder line on Syria was that Russia, normally a shield for Assad, had also signed the statement.
It read: “The [security council] condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings, confirmed by United Nations observers, of dozens of men, women and children and the wounding of hundreds more in the village of [Houla], near Homs, in attacks that involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood.”
But initial hope that the communique might mean a closer aligning of international opinion quickly subsided as the broader text was studied.
While the statement condemned deaths caused by artillery attack, which it said involved the Syrian government, it separately condemned deaths caused by “shooting at close range and by severe physical abuse” without attributing blame to anyone.
Russian diplomats later cast doubts over whether the violence perpetrated at close range was carried out by government forces.
Macabre as it may be to draw a distinction between the brutal deaths of different innocent children, the division is an important one to the Russian diplomatic position. An innocent person killed by artillery fire could be the result of a mistake or an individual’s unfortunate vicinity to a legitimate target. To coin the American phrase, it could be ‘collateral damage’. But a child killed at close range is indisputably a case of murder.
A source close to foreign secretary William Hague suggested the Russians has been pushed to support the statement due to the gravity of the massacre, but would withhold severe criticism because losing Assad from their sphere of influence would be too high a price.
He said: “The bottom line for Russia and China is that they don’t like external interference in other countries because they feel anxious someone at some point might do it to them; not least because Russia has the potential for separatism inside its own borders. China has the same.
“The second thing is the strategic support Syria gives to Russia. Syria is one of Russia’s oldest and most reliable allies in the Middle East. The Russians have a naval port at Tartus [on the Syrian Mediterranean coast]. They make a lot of arms sales to Syria and they see Damascus as a counter-weight to western influence in the region.”
That would mean the Russians blocking any resolutions that were not worded in the most anodyne way, the source said. Additionally, Russian Diplomats calculate that the US is unwilling to pursue military action while the EU is distracted with the eurozone.
The source went on: “The only way we would get the Russians to shift is not by appealing to their humanitarian instincts.
“It would be because they don’t particularly want to be part of an international playground in which they are effectively isolated. They are wary of finding themselves on the wrong side of broad Arab opinion.”
That would also require more unity in the Arab world, currently riven with division about how to approach the issue. Perhaps the only other situation in which Russia may turn is if it thought Assad was going to lose power anyway.
Publically, western governments will continue to demand the implementation of the Kofi Annan plan for peace, named after the former UN secretary general championing it.
Given that it should have already seen the government remove from civilian centres the heavy weapons used in the weekend’s attack, its success looks unlikely.
As British Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall-Grant put it yesterday: “Those tanks and heavy weapons should have been returned to their barracks months ago.”
Behind the scenes western nations may now increase aid to rebels; dangerous in itself because of the lack of coherence to the opposition movement.
The EDP source continued: “The Kofi Annan plan is running out of road, but it’s the best thing that the international community could come up with. Strengthened sanctions are difficult because of the porous borders Syria has.
“There’s been a proposal that instead of establishing a no-fly zone, we establish a ‘no-kill zone’, while at the same time beefing up the Free Syrian Army with defensive anti-tank and anti-air weaponry. That would at least make it harder for the government to get close enough to do harm.
“There may also be more encouragement to countries that are already helping the opposition, like Saudi Arabia who have given money, to see they give military help too.”
The future holds uncertainty, but it is clear the yawning fissure in Syrian national unity is becoming irreparable with mourners in opposition areas heard chanting: “Martyr of Houla we will not forget you, Child of Houla we will not forget you”.