Syria violence accelerates, UN responds with go-slow approach

A UN official says the Syrian government has ramped up attacks on protesters since Arab League monitors arrived. But the UN Security Council will wait at least a week to consider action. 

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivers a speech at Damascus University, Syria, Tuesday.

Despite estimates that Syrian government attacks against protesters have become more deadly since Arab League monitors arrived late last year – with at least 400 Syrians killed – prospects for United Nations Security Council action remains dim. 

The Security Council appears set to wait until the Arab League assesses its monitoring mission later this month before it considers any action. And with veto-wielding member Russia repeating its opposition to any steps targeting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, the chances of anything meaningful coming out of the Security Council even after the Arab League meets again on Jan. 19 may be remote.

The suggestion of an accelerated rate of killings in Syria came as part of a briefing that Lynn Pascoe, the UN under secretary for political affairs, presented to the 15-member council Tuesday. In all, the UN puts the death toll in Syria’s 10-month-old antiregime uprising at more than 5,000.

The Security Council met just hours after President Assad delivered a no-regrets speech in Damascus – his first since June – in which he blamed a “foreign conspiracy” for inciting the revolt and promised an “iron hand” to eradicate the “terrorists” he claimed are causing the violence.

“Our priority now is to regain the security we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand,” he said. “We will declare victory soon.”

Assad made few conciliatory gestures in the speech, though he did say his government would hold a referendum in March on a new constitution. But he insisted that opposition figures operating from outside the country, whom he called “traitors,” would never be accepted by Syrians.

After the Security Council session, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice called the UN’s report of 400 deaths since the monitors arrived “alarming” and said the bloodshed was evidence of increased government violence.

The rising death toll “is a clear indication that the government of Syria, rather than using the opportunity of its commitment to the Arab League to end the violence … is instead stepping up the violence despite the presence of monitors and carrying out further acts of brutality against its population, even often in the presence of those monitors,” Ambassador Rice said.

The US diplomat, who has had particularly caustic words for Russia as the council has deliberated on Syria, hinted at the rising frustration the US and other Western powers are feeling. Russia did forward a resolution on Syria last month, but it was seen by many as being too pro-Assad.

“After [making] a bit of a show last month of tabling a resolution, the Russians inexplicably have been more or less AWOL in terms of leading negotiations on the text of that resolution,” Rice said.

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said any council action before the Arab League’s Jan. 19 meeting is unlikely, adding that in any case the council would probably take its cue from the Arab League and is conclusions from its Syria mission.

Some European countries are pressing for action before the Arab League meeting. But the US and other Western powers are hardly in a position to move ahead without the region’s support, some regional experts note. In Libya last year, the West touted that it was acting with the Arab League’s blessings as it imposed a no-fly zone against the forces of deceased leader Muammar Qaddafi.

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