AMMAN/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. human rights chief blamed disagreement in the Security Council on Monday for encouraging the Syrian government to step up attacks on opposition strongholds in its campaign to crush an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s 11-year rule.
Russia and China on February 4 vetoed a European-Arab draft resolution condemning the crackdown and endorsing an Arab League plan for the Syrian leader to step aside.
“The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force,” the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the U.N. General Assembly.
“I am particularly appalled by the ongoing onslaught on Homs,” she said. “According to credible accounts, the Syrian army has shelled densely populated neighborhoods of Homs in what appears to be an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas.”
An Arab League proposal to boost support for the uprising and to send in foreign peacekeepers has also drawn a guarded international response even as Syrian forces bombarded rebellious districts of Homs and attacked other cities.
Mortar rounds and tank fire pounded Baba Amro district but casualties could not be tallied because communications were cut off, activist Mohammad al-Hassan told Reuters from Homs.
Activists said 23 people were killed on Sunday, adding to a toll of more than 300 since the assault on Homs, strategically located on the highway between the capital Damascus and second city Aleppo, began on February 3.
Russia, Assad’s close ally and main arms supplier, said it could not support a peacekeeping mission unless both sides ceased the violence first. Some felt the moves might only fan the flames of war.
“We feel the decisions are taking a grave turn for Syria and for the region,” Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said in Beirut.
Other observers said it was just the start of a long and complex process to resolve what is potentially the most dangerous of the Arab Spring revolts.
For graphic of Homs link.reuters.com/tuc56s
World powers meanwhile digested Arab League proposals calling for a joint U.N.-Arab peacekeeping force for Syria.
The United States and Europe are reluctant to get dragged in militarily, fearing that given Syria’s position in the Middle East’s religious, ethnic and political faultlines, this would be more risky and complicated than the NATO-led air support that helped Libyan rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi last year.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said more time was needed to discuss the proposals.
“We look forward to being able to continue to consult with them on their precise idea for a peacekeeping force but we would note that there are a number of challenges with regard to this proposal ...” she said.
“We need more time to talk to the Arab League about how they would see this coming together, because from our perspectives there are a number of challenges in getting it to come together.”
In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear Russia would not support the peacekeeping plan unless there was a halt to violence by both government forces and their armed opponents.
“The tragedy is that the armed groups that are confronting the forces of the regime are not subordinate to anyone and are not under control,” he said.
China backed what it termed the Arab League’s “mediation” but offered no clear sign of support for the peacekeeper call.
“Relevant moves by the United Nations should be conducive towards lessening tension in Syria...rather than complicating things,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said any peacekeeping troops should come from non-Western countries: “I don’t see the way forward in Syria as being Western boots on the ground in any form, including in any peacekeeping form.”
France was also unenthusiastic. “We think that any external military intervention would only make the situation worse...,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
A peacekeeping mission would in any case require the cooperation of Syria, which dismissed the League’s resolution as a “hostile act that targets Syria’s security and stability.”
The fragmented nature of the opposition to Assad, who is from the Alawite minority in the mostly Sunni Muslim country, is also a problem for those keen on political change in Syria.
The Arab League effort has also highlighted regional rivalries. Its moves have been driven by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchies who have long resented Assad’s close ties to Shi‘ite regional rival Iran.
Beirut-based political commentator Rami Khouri said that although the Arab plan was fraught with difficulty, it was also “incredibly bold and incredibly daring.” “It is the beginning of a very complex process driven by the Arab League,” he said.
Other analysts believe Syria is slipping towards a civil war whose sectarian dimensions could inflame the wider region. But Assad’s downfall is far from imminent. The unrelenting assaults on opposition strongholds show his resolve to crush his foes and resist reforms other than on his own terms, they say.
In Homs, government troops concentrated their fire on Baba Amro in the south and al-Waer in the west, which borders the Military College, a main assembly point for tanks and government troops, opposition campaigners said.
Activist Hassan said al-Waer, scene of large pro-democracy demonstrations for months, had come under attack in the last several days from pro-Assad militia known as shabbiha.
“We heard that the Free Syrian Army has started responding by attacking roadblocks being manned by shabbiha. Communications with al-Waer have been cut off and the sound of shelling can be now heard,” Hassan said.
The Free Syrian Army, led by military defectors, has taken the central role in armed opposition to the government. Accounts of action on the ground are difficult to verify because Syria restricts access by journalists.
On Sunday armor-backed troops raided the al-Inshaat district of Homs. Tanks ran over civilian cars and troops ransacked houses and burned furniture in the streets as collective punishment, the Coalition of Free Homs said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shelling had also started up again on the city of Rastan in Homs province.
Government forces had made failed attempts to storm Rastan at dawn from its southern entrance. Rebels destroyed an armored vehicle and killed three soldiers, the Observatory said.
In the city of Hama, 50 km (30 miles) north of Homs, government forces backed by tanks and armored vehicles killed at least one man when they raided neighborhoods on Sunday near the countryside where the Free Syrian Army has been active.
“It is the third day of such incursions. They fire heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft guns at random, then they go in and raid houses and arrest dozens of people,” activist Fady al-Jaber said from Hama.
A Damascus-based spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said people living in areas hit by the conflict were now struggling to find even basic foodstuffs.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Erika Solomon in Beirut and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Maria Golovnina