As Syria death toll soars, so does US frustration with Russia

The death toll from the crackdown in Syria has topped 5,000, the top UN human rights official told the Security Council. With Russia blocking action, the US and others are voicing increasing frustration.

Royal Navy/MoD/Crown Copyright/Reuters
The Royal Navy’s Type 42 destroyer HMS York steams alongside the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov (at rear) in international waters off the east coast of Scotland Monday. Russia is sending a flotilla of warships to its naval base in Syria in a show of force that suggests Moscow is willing to defend its interests in the strife-torn country as international pressure mounts on President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Citing a death toll in Syria’s government-backed violence that has now topped 5,000, the top UN human rights official is imploring the Security Council to get tough with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But with Russia dismissing any attempt at international action against the Assad regime as hypocritical and “immoral,” the likelihood of anything being done soon appears slight.

This has prompted the United States and other parties frustrated by the dim prospects of meaningful international action against Mr. Assad to draw stark contrasts between the Security Council’s muted response to the crisis and recent steps taken by other countries and institutions.

“Through condemnations issued by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council and bold steps taken by the Arab League and the government of Turkey, international bodies are starting to match their severe disapproval of Syria’s bloody crackdown with concrete steps to bring it to an end,” Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said following a Security Council session on Syria Monday. “It is past time for the UN Security Council to do the same.”

The US statement followed an urgent plea by Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, for the Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for investigation of alleged crimes against humanity.

The death toll from nine months of violence in Syria has surpassed 5,000, while thousands more Syrians have been detained or are unaccounted for, Ms. Pillay told the Security Council. As she did at a briefing for the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier this month, Pillay underscored in particular the high price that Syrian children are paying in the violence.

The Arab League and Turkey have imposed sanctions on Syria, but the Security Council has been unable to overcome a Russian “nyet” to any action against Syria, with which Russia maintains strong ties.

Even Monday’s merely informational Security Council session only took place because France threatened to call for a vote on Syria, potentially embarrassing Russia by forcing its veto, if the Syria briefing did not proceed, UN analysts said.

The wrangling at the UN took place as thousands of Syrians closed businesses and boycotted schools in protest against the government crackdown.

But neither internal events in Syria nor actions by regional actors like the Arab League appear to be swaying Russia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that international condemnation of Assad would be “immoral” when the regime is facing the violence of “armed extremist  groups.”

Mr. Lavrov said last month that Syria was in a civil war, and that it was not the international community’s place to side against the government. But that has not stopped Russia from showing support for Assad, for example by recently sending warships to fly the Russian flag in Syrian ports.

The US, on the other hand, has declared that Assad is no longer legitimate and must step down. Ambassador Rice repeated that position Monday, saying, “Let there be no doubt: Assad’s days in power are numbered.” The days that pass before that occurs, she added, will determine how many more Syrian children die in the country’s violence.

“The question is how many more Syrians – such as 13-year-old Hamza Khatib, who was tortured and murdered in April – must be beaten, killed or raped,” Rice said, “before Assad leaves office?”

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