UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Russia, which had previously blocked a U.N. Security Council declaration of alarm about the situation in Syria’s al-Qusair, let a similar statement pass on Friday after the strategic town fell to troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The statement contained all of the same elements that were in a text Russia rejected last weekend, saying at the time it was “one-sided” and amounted to a demand for a unilateral ceasefire by government forces. Unlike resolutions, Security Council statements must be adopted unanimously.
“The members of the Security Council express their grave concern about the humanitarian impact of the recent heavy fighting in al-Qusair,” the approved statement said.
It added that the 15-nation council urged Assad’s government “to allow immediate, safe and unhindered access ... to relevant humanitarian, including U.N., actors, to reach civilians in al-Qusair, in urgent need of assistance, in particular medical assistance.”
Government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies seized control of Qusair on Wednesday, a severe setback to rebel fighters battling to overthrow Assad.
Diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity that it would have been hard for Russia to block the statement twice as Assad’s government, which had refused to allow aid workers into the town near the Lebanese border during a weeks-long siege, had promised to permit aid access once they took Qusair.
“We were obviously disappointed that it didn’t prove possible to agree a statement at the weekend,” British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the council this month, told reporters. “But we are pleased that it has been possible to achieve this humanitarian statement.”
“It’s the first product of the Security Council on Syria for many months, apart from press statements on various terrorist incidents,” he said. “So I think it’s significant, and it’s a sign that perhaps the Security Council is coming back together a little bit on the Syrian issue.”
Diplomats said Moscow’s move to block the statement over the weekend highlighted the deep chasm between Russia and Western nations on how to deal with the two-year-old Syrian civil war. U.S.-Russian attempts to organize a peace conference in Geneva have faltered and the meeting has been pushed to July at least.
The council has long been deadlocked on Syria, with Assad’s ally Russia joining with China to block sanctions and veto three resolutions condemning the Syrian government’s onslaught on what began as peaceful demonstrations in March 2011.
Since that time, the uprising has become a full-blown civil war that has left more than 80,000 dead. It now involves an increasing number of foreign fighters, including the largely Shi‘ite Iranian-backed Hezbollah on the side of the government and Sunni Islamist militants on the rebel side.
The council statement approved on Friday called on all parties to the conflict “to do their utmost to protect civilians and avoid civilian casualties, recalling the primary responsibility of the Syrian government in this regard.”
It added that “those responsible for violations of applicable international law will be held accountable.”
The Security Council was due to meet later on Friday to discuss Austria’s withdrawal from the Golan Heights U.N. peacekeeping force due to recent fighting there.
Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Will Dunham