Middle East

Assad appeals to BRICS countries to help end war

DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syria’s president sent a letter calling for help from leaders of five BRICS nations at an economic meeting Wednesday in South Africa to help end his country’s civil war, further pitting the conflict along East-West lines.

Bashar Assad’s appeal to Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa came a day after the Arab League endorsed Syria’s Western-backed opposition coalition, allowing it to take the nation’s seat at a summit in Doha, Qatar. The move drew strong condemnation from Damascus, which warned it would take “appropriate measures” to defend its sovereignty.

“This requires a clear international will to dry up the sources of terrorism and stop its funding and arming,” Assad said in the letter, which was carried by Syrian state media. It was addressed to the leaders at the BRICS forum.

Assad said Syria was subjected to “acts of terrorism backed by Arab, regional and Western nations” and asked the leaders to “work for an immediate cessation of violence that would guarantee the success of the political solution.”

The opposition’s ascension to the Arab League further demonstrated the extent of the regime’s isolation two years into the country’s civil war.

In a further show of solidarity with anti-Assad forces, the summit in Qatar endorsed the “right of each state” to provide the Syrian people and the rebel Free Syrian Army with “all necessary means to ... defend themselves, including military means.”

Following up on the endorsement, the Syrian National Coalition opened what it called its first embassy, raising its green, white and black rebel flag at a different site from the now-closed Syrian Embassy in the Qatari capital.

Key opposition figures looked on, including Ghassan Hitto, George Sabra and leader Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, who recently said he was stepping down from his post and criticized the international community for not doing enough to back the anti-Assad forces. Khatib said the coalition would not discuss his resignation, leaving open the option that he could be asked to reverse his decision.

Envoys from the U.S., Turkey, France and other nations that have backed the rebels also attended the ceremony. The new embassy operations are mostly symbolic, but can serve as a base for political initiatives. Many nations in the West, Arab world and elsewhere have declared the coalition the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and have effectively broken diplomatic ties with Assad’s regime.

Khatib criticized a decision by NATO not to use U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries based in Turkey to help protect parts of northern Syria from attacks by Assad’s military.

But the opposition alliance is marred by severe divisions among its ranks, and often disconnected from the rebel forces fighting inside Syria, so it’s not immediately clear how the developments in Qatar would translate on the ground. The Syrian government said the Arab League’s decisions in favor of the opposition “violate in a flagrant way its charter.” A statement carried by state-run TV said the Doha summit “encouraged violence, radicalism and extremism that form a danger not only to Syria but for the whole Arab nation and the world.”

It said Damascus rejected the Arab summit’s decisions and reserved its right “to take appropriate measures to defend its sovereignty and interests of its people.”

Russia, Assad’s most powerful protector expressed “bewilderment” at the Arab League decision and also criticized the U.N. Human Rights Council for putting the whole blame on Damascus and trying to hush up atrocities committed by rebels.

“In Doha, another anti-Syria step was taken,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “In fact this is about openly encouraging those powers that unfortunately continue to bet on a military solution in Syria.”

“Developments at the Arab League summit in Doha and decisions taken there, regardless of objections by some member states, cause bewilderment to say the least,” it said, adding that the summit’s decisions contravened international law.

BRICS countries, including Assad’s key ally Russia, oppose foreign intervention in Syria and accuse the West of trying to force regime change. Russia, China and South Africa have also voted against Security Council resolutions on Syria.

At the gathering in the South African coastal resort of Durban, President Jacob Zuma and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, were asked Tuesday whether they would use their influence to persuade Assad to allow unimpeded U.N. humanitarian access across all of Syria’s borders, as requested by leading activists from BRICS countries.

Zuma did not answer, while Putin said only that “we will think about it.”

In his letter, Assad criticized European and U.S. sanctions imposed on his regime and urged leaders of the five countries to “exert every possible effort to lift the suffering of the Syrian people that were caused by the sanctions,” an apparent reference to shortages of goods and soaring prices.

Syrian activist groups reported violence in different areas in the country Wednesday, including Damascus and its suburbs and the southern Qunaitra region along the cease-fire line separating Syria from Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees reported clashes and shelling in the Qunaitra villages of Bir Ajam, Rasm al-Hawa and Ein al-Darb. The Observatory said rebels overran three army posts near Bir Ajam Wednesday.

The area near the Golan Heights, a strategic goal of the rebels, has been the scene of heavy clashes for days. The Observatory also said Syrian warplanes launched two strikes on Qaboun in northeastern Damascus.

“Two airstrikes were carried out on rebel-held buildings in Qaboun,” the Observatory said, adding that violence in Damascus had risen after insurgents seized control of Jobar district in the city’s east. “There is now fighting in Tadamon, Assali, Yarmouk, Qadam and Qaboun districts,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said of outlying neighborhoods of the capital that have seen intermittent violence.

In Homs, the army pressed its campaign against rebel enclaves, pounding the district of Khaldieh in the heart of the city, the Observatory added. – Agencies, The Daily Star

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 28, 2013, on page 1.




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