Since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began some 16 months ago more than 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria and tens of thousands have been displaced, according to United Nations estimates. The International Red Cross has now formally declared the conflict a civil war, which may have legal implications under the Geneva Accords for determining whether war crimes might have been committed. However, the reality is that the conflict has been a civil war for some time between the Assad loyalists and the armed opposition.
To date, the opposition has been outgunned and splintered. But they have now taken their fight to the heart of the Syrian capital of Damascus, with a devastating blow against the central command of the Assad regime's repression machine.
An explosion was set off on July 18th in a national security building in Damascus, during a meeting of the government’s top security chiefs to discuss how to crush the uprising. The bombing took the lives of President Assad's brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, and Gen Dawoud Rajha, the defense minister, who was the most senior Christian government official in Syria. Hassan Turkmani, a former minister of defense who headed the regime’s crisis management cell, was also killed. Others were wounded.
Liwa al-Islam (translated as "The Brigade of Islam"), a rebel group, has claimed responsibility. Another group called the Free Syrian Army, according to a report in the Washington Post, said that its loyalists had planted bombs inside a room where the top-level meeting was being held. The Free Syrian Army is made up of defected Syrian armed forces personnel, which is an expanding number.
Col. Malik Kurdi, the Free Syrian Army's deputy commander, explained the reason for the attack:
The Free Syrian Army carried out this attack in retaliation for the massacres committed by the regime and because of the international silence.We promised that we are going to hit the regime in its most sensitive axis. This was necessary for us.
On the very same day of this attack, and shortly before the United Nations observer mandate in Syria is due to expire on July 20th, the feckless United Nations Security Council was preparing to vote on a resolution offered by the United Kingdom that was supposedly designed to up the ante to deal with the Syrian crisis. The vote was postponed for a day at the urging of UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General.
The British resolution - which in its present form is virtually certain to be vetoed by Russia and most likely by China - contains authorization for economic sanctions against the Syrian regime under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
Russia has offered its own competing resolution that condemns all sides for the violence, repeats calls for the parties to comply with Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan, including a cease fire and steps towards a transitional government acceptable to the Syrian people, and extends the UN observer mandate in Syria. It pointedly stays clear of any Chapter VII enforcement measures such as sanctions.
The United States, United Kingdom and France all, not surprisingly, rejected the Russian draft as insufficient. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice went so far as to say that it would be wrong to keep any UN observers in Syria if the Security Council will not have their back by demonstrating a willingness to take more effective action against the Assad regime such as sanctions.
This squabbling among the permanent members of the Security Council all took place before the bombing incident in Damascus that killed Assad's brother-in-law and Syria's current and former defense ministers. That incident is now being used as a pretext by different permanent members of the Security Council to advance their respective agendas.
The United Kingdom's foreign minister William Hague, for example, said: "This incident, which we condemn, confirms the urgent need for a Chapter VII resolution of the UN Security Council on Syria."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared, "Adopting a resolution against this backdrop would amount to a direct support for the revolutionary movement. If we are talking about a revolution then the U.N. Security Council has no place in this." He also accused the West of inciting the Syrian opposition, which may well be true.
The Chinese UN Ambassador was quoted as telling the investigative blog Inner City Press that what happened in Damascus was nothing less than a "terrorist" act.
The permanent members of the Security Council are going through the motions of negotiations to try to come to an agreement on what Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called "collective action with a sense of unity.” But as usual, it's all for show. As France's UN Ambassador Gérard Araud strode into the Security Council chamber on July 18th, for example, and told the press that negotiations with Russia and China on a compromise have not been ruled out, I asked him whether keeping authorization for Chapter VII enforcement in the resolution submitted for a vote by the Security Council was a red line for its proponents. "Yes," he responded. In other words, a stalemate is lurking that will likely to lead to a veto when the Chapter VII resolution finally comes to a vote.
In a rare bit of candor for a UN diplomat, the current president of the Security Council, Columbian Ambassador Néstor Osorio, conceded in response to my question that there wasn't really very much that the Security Council or the United Nations could do in any event to solve the Syrian crisis.
If the Chapter VII sanctions resolution were to miraculously pass the Security Council when it comes to a vote, they won't be enforced. Russia and Iran will continue to arm the Assad regime as long as they think it is in their interests to do so.
If, as is more likely, the resolution is vetoed, there will be finger-pointing by all sides. For her part, Susan Rice can be expected to spare no words in her condemnation of Assad's supporters at the UN who blocked punitive action. And the Russian ambassador can be expected to retort that the West is interfering in a civil war to bring about regime change. That's been the back-and-forth school yard brawling pattern all year long.
But whatever happens at Turtle Bay, one thing is for sure. It won't make any difference in the lives of the Syrian people.
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