Sarkozy pushes ‘Friends of Syria’ group at UN

Sarkozy UN.jpg

Western and Arab states voiced outrage yesterday (5 February) after Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution that would have backed an Arab plan urging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up power. French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed creating a "Friends of Syria" group to advance initiative.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto a "travesty". It came a day after activists said Syrian forces bombarded a district of Homs, killing more than 200 people in the worst night of bloodshed in the 11-month uprising.

Russia said the resolution was biased and would have meant taking sides in a civil war. Syria is Moscow's only big ally in the Middle East, home to a Russian naval base and customer for its arms. China's veto appeared to follow Russia's lead.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Moscow and Beijing had turned their backs on the Arab world. France's Alain Juppé said they "carried a terrible responsibility in the eyes of the world and Syrian people".

Clinton said the United States would work with other nations to try to tighten "regional and national" sanctions against Assad's government "to dry up the sources of funding and the arms shipments that are keeping the regime's war machine going."

"We will work to expose those who are still funding the regime and sending it weapons that are used against defenseless Syrians, including women and children," she said. "We will work with the friends of a democratic Syria around the world to support the opposition's peaceful political plans for change."

Coalition of the willing?

Clinton did not give further details which nations might band together or precisely what they might do. But it appeared that the United States might seek to help organise a "Friends of Syria" group – proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy after the veto – to advance the Arab League initiative given the inability to make headway at the U.N. due to Russia and China.

Sarkozy is receiving German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris today and the two are expected to speak on public television on a wide range of issues, including the escalating violence in Syria.

All 13 other members of the Security Council voted to back the resolution, which would have "fully supported" the Arab League plan for Assad to cede powers to a deputy, a withdrawal of troops from towns and a start to a transition to democracy.

The Western criticism was echoed in the Middle East, where Arab powers like Saudi Arabia and non-Arab Turkey have turned decisively against Assad in recent months.

"Unfortunately, yesterday in the UN, the Cold War logic continues," said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu. "Russia and China did not vote based on the existing realities but more a reflexive attitude against the West."

Russia's UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, accused the resolution's backers of "calling for regime change, pushing the opposition towards power and not stopping their provocations and feeding armed struggle".

"Some influential members of the international community, unfortunately including those sitting around this table, from the very beginning of the Syrian process have been undermining the opportunity for a political settlement," he said. 

The President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz condemned the violence in Homs, Syria and made the following statement:

"On behalf of the European Parliament, I condemn the terrible atrocities committed in the name of the Syrian regime against civilians in Homs.  My thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims. A massacre of innocent civilians has taken place.   

"I call on President Assad to pull back his forces immediately. The Assad regime has no remaining legitimacy.  Furthermore, I call on the whole international community to stand together including Russia and China. They must take their international responsibilities seriously and I regret the vetoing of the UN resolution condemning the violence and the Syrian regime." 

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament, called into question the credibility of the UN body when a resolution on Syria supported by 13 of its members can be blocked by China and Russia.

"The blockage [...] is unacceptable – especially from two countries which have no lessons to give on human rights and democracy.  Authoritarian regimes who believe they can survive by simply denying the massacres in Syria are wrong and guilty by association.

"I call for all EU Member States as well as EU/HR Baroness Ashton to ask for the immediate departure of all Syrian ambassadors from within the territory of the EU.

"Furthermore, safe heavens on the Syrian border - and possibly even within – must be established as soon as possible to protect the civilian population.”

"For months Assad has been given the chance to bring about change. Instead he has escalated repression and massacred his own people. Enough is enough. Russia and China cannot be allowed to prevent action to save lives. If nothing is done, more courageous people who want an end to tyranny will die and the UN's legitimacy will be undermined," Verhofstadt concluded.

Protests in Syria began in mid-March, inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The regime has been facing mounting international pressure against its crackdown on the protest movement.

Tensions are high between Syria's Sunni majority population, the driving force of the protests, and President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

According to the UN, the crackdown has killed some 6,000 civilians and soldiers who refused to shoot.

The crisis is the gravest facing Syria since Haffez, al-Assad's father, crushed an armed Islamist uprising in 1982. In addition to the bloodshed, Western powers, Arab states and Turkey have imposed several rounds of sanctions.

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