Middle East

Foreign powers weigh in on Syria as Qusair rages

President of the Syrian National Council (SNC) George Sabra (C) talks with other Syrian opposition members during a break at the Syrian opposition meeting in Istanbul, on May 25, 2013. AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE

BEIRUT: Russia slammed a U.S.-backed draft resolution condemning Syria’s use of foreign fighters in the strategic town of Qusair as counterproductive to peace efforts, ahead of a U.N. Human Rights Council debate on the proposal Wednesday.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that Washington’s support for the “unilateral and odious” draft resolution undercuts their joint campaign to bring polarized international actors together for a major peace conference next month, dubbed Geneva 2.

"The U.S. delegation [at the council] is very actively promoting this extremely unwholesome initiative," Lavrov said. “It's necessary that all of us work honestly and without double standards, speaking in support of the conference while simultaneously taking action to derail the proposal.”

If passed, the resolution would denounce “widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights” by Bashar Assad’s government and pro-regime militias. It also criticizes "the intervention of foreign combatants fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime in Al-Qusair," in a reference to Lebanon’s Hezbollah who have taken an active role in the battle for vital town, according to an advanced copy seen by Reuters.

It would also call for a U.N.-sponsored inquiry into events in Qusair, which acts as a corridor linking Damascus to the coastal enclave, home to the majority of Assad’s own Alawite sect and an important supply line for rebel weapons from neighboring Lebanon.

Lavrov also said that Assad’s opponents should be prepared to enter dialogue in Geneva “without preconditions,” including his exit, and reiterated that Iran should attend the conference. Russia and Iran are prominent backers of Syria’s government. Moscow is the Syrian government’s biggest weapon’s supplier and Tuesday confirmed that it will continue to provide sophisticated S-300 land-to-air missiles to the regime.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi announced Wednesday that Tehran "supports Geneva talks and U.N. efforts." His remarks reflect their attempt to angle for a role in the negotiations.

Speaking in Paris, Salehi’s French counterpart Laurent Fabius said any decision to include Iran in the Geneva talks would be "extremely dangerous" as it would harm prospects of reaching a deal with Tehran on its disputed nuclear program.

"We fear that if they are part of the Syrian conference they will try to drag things on to such an extent that they will blackmail us saying that the Syrian crisis can only be resolved on condition that they have the nuclear bomb," Fabius told France Inter radio. Iran denies seeking nuclear capability.

Disagreement over attendees for Geneva 2 also raged among Syria’s opposition groups.

Opponents of Assad on the ground in Syria slammed their counterparts in exile for exposing the deep divisions among the regime’s foes and for being unable to decide who should represent the body in Geneva next month.

The Revolutionary Movement in Syria, an umbrella organization of activist groups from across the country, threatened to withdraw its backing for the Syrian National Coalition if the notoriously fractured opposition leadership in exile does not come up with a united strategy that will represent millions of Syrians caught up in the country's civil war.

While the loss of support would have little practical effect, it would deal a sharp symbolic blow to the coalition, which has long been accused of being out of touch with those on the ground in Syria.

The Revolutionary Movement said the Coalition is "unable to fulfill its obligations due to the ongoing discord" among its different parties and said the statement Wednesday was its "last warning" before they withdraw their support.

"We have waited in vain for many months for the National Coalition to take concrete steps, and offered its leadership multiple chances to do so," the statement said. "The reality is that there is no doubt that the ... leadership has failed to fulfill its responsibility to represent the great Syrian people's revolution at the organizational, political, and humanitarian levels."

The U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu arrived at the Istanbul talksWednesday, highlighting their determination to bring the body together, fearing that opposition disunity in Geneva would strengthen Assad’s hand.

Despite their divisions, the coalition strongly urged the European Union to supply arms to rebel forces sooner rather than later.

The call followed the EU’s decision to ease the arms embargo to Syria earlier this week, paving way for individual member states to supply the rebels with weapons to bolster the outgunned opposition fighters.

In a statement late Tuesday, the Syrian opposition coalition urged the EU to promptly send "specialized weaponry to repel the fierce attacks waged against unarmed civilians" by the Assad regime, its allies in Hezbollah group and their Iranian backers.

There are deep divisions in the EU over ways to end the bloodshed in Syria, and even Britain and France - who want to arm the rebels - have said they have no immediate plans to send weapons until diplomacy has been given a chance. The U.S. and Russia are trying to launch Syrian peace talks at a conference in Geneva, possibly next month. – with agencies

 

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