By Colum Lynch
Russia and China on Saturday vetoed a U.N. resolution condemning Syria’s violent repression of anti-government demonstrators, effectively quashing efforts to isolate President Bashar al-Assad’s government as it intensifies a nearly year-long crackdown.
The veto dealt a blow to attempts by the United States and its European partners to rally behind an Arab League plan that would require Assad to yield power and make way for a democratically elected unity government. The vote followed weeks of negotiations in which diplomats had significantly watered down the resolution in a bid to win broad support.
“The United States is disgusted” by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said after the vote. “A couple of members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant.”
Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, countered that the United States and its partners had undermined the prospects for a deal, saying they had promoted a strategy aimed at “regime change” by backing the opposition’s pursuit of power and fueling “armed methods of struggle.”
The rift left the diplomatic process in disarray, with Arab League delegates vowing to press ahead with their plan for a political transition in Syria, while Russia announced that officials would travel Tuesday to Damascus, where they will meet with Assad and to try to push a competing plan to bring the Syrian government and the opposition together for direct talks.
But some Syria experts were worried that it was already too late for diplomatic solutions. “Things are slipping out of control on the ground so much that I’m not sure that [the resolution] could have stopped the killing,” said Andrew Tabler, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The U.N. deadlock came a day after Syrian authorities moved to crush resistance in the town of Homs, killing scores of civilians on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Hama. Estimates of those killed late Friday varied widely, but the assault seemed to be the strongest attempt yet by the government to put down the protests. Although casualties have been heavy for months, Syrian forces have largely abstained from the use of heavier weaponry. Activists now worry that the attack heralds a new and more aggressive strategy on the part of Assad’s government.
On Saturday, crowds gathered in Homs for the first funerals of the dead, with tens of thousands shown in video footage massing around coffins and shrouds decked with flowers. An opposition spokesman said that after the funerals, people were waiting eagerly to hear the results of the U.N. vote.
“We were hoping they would change their opinion,” said the spokesman, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Rami. “Unfortunately they used their veto. The people here are not so much disappointed. We will rely on Allah, the holy God, and after Allah, we will rely on the Free Syrian Army.”
The 13 to 2 Security Council vote capped weeks of tumultuous negotiations that pitted the United States, the European Union and the Arab League against Russia, Syria’s most powerful remaining protector in the 15-member council.