UN chief calls for change in Syria mission

Amid rising violence, Ban Ki-moon tells Security Council observers should relocate to capital, focus on politics.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has recommended shifting the monitoring mission in Syria from observing an essentially non-existent ceasefire to securing a political solution to the conflict.

Ban’s report to the council, delivered to the Security Council on Friday, recommend’s the emphasis of the mission change from military observers – who suspended most of their monitoring activities on June 16 because of increased violence – to the roughly 100 civilian staff focusing on a political solution and issues like human rights.

The deeply divided council must make a decision on what to do with the mission before July 20, when its mandate expires. The council is scheduled to discuss the issue on Wednesday and is due to vote on July 18.

The 15-member council approved in April the deployment of up to 300 unarmed military observers to Syria to oversee a ceasefire that has failed to take hold. The mission is part of a six-point peace plan proposed by international envoy Kofi Annan.

Under Ban’s recommendation, the mission would keep its current mandate for up to 300 unarmed observers, but significantly fewer likely would be needed to support the new focus.

No consensus on military option

A meeting of more than 100 nations opposed to President Bashar al-Assad also met on Friday in Paris and called for UN-backed sanctions to force Syria into a political transition. But the government representatives attending the “Friends of Syria” meeting refrained from a call for military action to end the 16-month conflict.

The meeting concluded that Assad could not be part of the transition and called on the Security Council to pass a resolution authorising sanctions and diplomatic action but which explicitly disallows the threat or use of armed force.

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The six-point plan peace plan drawn up by Annan has fallen flat, and violence has climbed to levels even higher than before the plan was proposed.

Members of Syria’s opposition at the Paris meeting said the international community is still moving too slowly, and called for a military measure to end the crisis.

The meeting came amid reports that Manaf Tlas, a Syrian general and personal friend of Assad, was travelling to Paris after defecting from his position as a brigade commander in the elite Republican Guard.

Lauren Fabius, the French foreign minister, called the defection a serious blow to Assad’s government, a sign that even his inner circle is starting to realise “that you cannot support a butcher,” he said.

“Everybody considers this to be a blow for the government,” Fabius said. “It means that his close entourage is beginning to understand that the regime is unsustainable.”

Missing powers

The meeting follows a gathering in Tunis and another in Istanbul, both of which called in vain for tougher action against Assad’s government.

China and Russia did not attend either of those meetings, in which the United States, France, Britain, Germany as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar gathered with a group of more than 60 nations, including most European Union and Arab League states.

On Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged world powers to show Russia and China they would “pay a price” for impeding progress toward a democratic transition in Syria.

“It is, frankly, not enough just to come to the Friends of the Syrian People [meeting] because I will tell you very frankly, I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all – nothing at all – for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime,” she said.

“The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price because they are holding up progress – blockading it – [and] that is no longer tolerable.”

Russia hits back

Russia hit back on Friday, saying Washington’s suggestion that Moscow should “pay a price” for helping keep Assad in power was “incorrect”.

Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told Interfax news agency that Clinton’s statement went against the strategy for ending the bloodshed in Syria that was agreed by world powers last Saturday in Geneva.

Russia, which is sensitive about outside interference in any sovereign state, lobbied hard against efforts by other powers at the Geneva talks to include a precondition that would have excluded Assad from a proposed national unity government.

“The statement (by Clinton) was incorrect,” Gatilov was quoted by Interfax as saying. “What worries us more than anything is that such remarks go against the final document of the Geneva talks, the adoption of which was approved with the participation of the US secretary of state.”

The UN has warned that thousands more people in Syria have fled their homes in the past two weeks due to heavy fighting and that food prices have tripled in parts of seven provinces where the livelihoods of farmers and livestock herders are at risk of collapse, with the wheat harvest delayed by a shortage of diesel fuel.

“The overall situation is characterised by severe insecurity and ongoing fighting which means that UN agencies do not have access to many areas,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a news briefing in Geneva.

Many of the 200,000 residents of Douma, 15 km north of the capital, have fled to central Damascus, OCHA said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies