- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fighting between rebels and Syrian forces intensified and spread across the capital of Damascus on Tuesday as diplomats scrambled to shore up a tough international response to the “civil war” ahead of a U.N. deadline for withdrawing observers.

Using helicopter gunships, Syrian forces beefed up their bid to crush the 16-month-old rebellion against President Bashar Assad, but were met with an influx of rebels on the third day of sustained clashes, including fighting near the parliament building.

The Free Syrian Army, a rebel force made up of soldiers who have deserted Mr. Assad, is bolstering its presence in the capital, according to two sources in Syria, who sought anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“It’s just a matter of weeks, not months” before the regime falls, said Mousab Azzawi, a doctor and London-based spokesman for the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

He said the rebel offensive has boxed the regime into a circle 7 miles in diameter in Damascus.

Terrified families fled the city or said they were prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. Residents said they were packing “getaway bags” in case they had to run for their lives.

“My bag has my family’s passports, our university degrees, some cash and medicine,” a 57-year-old father of two told the Associated Press. He also asked for anonymity. “It is very hard to imagine leaving your home and everything you worked to get, but it’s a matter of life and death.”

Syrian activists say the international community must make it a priority to protect civilians in what the Red Cross has deemed a civil war. The United Nations estimates that up to 1.5 million people in Syria are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

At the United Nations, diplomatic battle lines have been drawn with Britain and Russia circulating competing drafts of resolutions to put pressure on Mr. Assad’s regime and end the conflict. A vote is expected Wednesday.

The Western-backed British draft calls for nonmilitary sanctions against the regime if Mr. Assad refuses to withdraw his troops and heavy weapons from population centers within 10 days. The proposed resolution is under the U.N. Charter’s Chapter VII, which allows the use of force to end the conflict. However, the United States and its Western allies are opposed to military intervention.

Russia objects to the use of military force, and its draft calls for the immediate implementation of U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan, which seeks a cease-fire followed by a political solution to the conflict. Mr. Annan’s plan so far has been a failure.

Britain is standing firm on the text of its resolution.

The text “hasn’t changed much, and not at all on the core issues of Chapter VII and the threat of sanctions,” a Western official said on background, citing the sensitive nature of the discussions.

Mr. Annan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday in a bid to secure a compromise, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that Moscow is willing to seek a consensus.

“I don’t see a reason that we couldn’t agree in the Security Council. We are prepared for that,” Mr. Lavrov told the Interfax news agency. Russia has twice vetoed U.N. resolutions to step up pressure on the Assad regime.

Syrian activists, including members from the largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council, converged on New York on Tuesday in an attempt to get their voices heard.

“We want to convey the message that the Syrian people have lost faith in the diplomatic efforts at the Security Council,” Najib Ghadbian, a senior member of the Syrian National Council, said in a phone interview from New York.

Dima Moussa, a U.S.-based member of the Syrian National Council, added, “I don’t think it is a secret that the international efforts have failed to achieve what they set out to do.”

The conflict is having “a devastating physical and psychological impact on hundreds of thousands of people,” Valerie Amos, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said Monday.

Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International who was in Syria in April and May, said addressing the humanitarian crisis should be a top priority for the international community.

“Unfortunately, the fate of the civilian population has been very much neglected, if not ignored altogether, in the context of the kind of debates that have been had at the international level and the kind of options that have been considered,” Ms. Rovera said.

The debate at the United Nations is taking place on the eve of the Friday expiration of the mandate of a 300-member-strong U.N. observer mission. The U.N. team’s effectiveness has been severely hampered by its small size and limited authority, which was to observe a cease-fire that never happened.

Ms. Rovera called on the international community to expand the mandate of the U.N. observers, push for free access for a U.N. commission of inquiry and refer the Assad regime to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, as it did with Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya in February 2011.

“It is regrettable that [the referral to the International Criminal Court] wasn’t done earlier, but I think it’s not too late to do it because we haven’t seen the worst of the violence in Syria,” she added.

In Congress, Reps. Steve Israel, New York Democrat, and Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, have introduced a resolution that calls for Mr. Assad to be tried before the world court for crimes against humanity. That bill is now in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the innocent men, women and children who are being brutally murdered on a daily basis in Syria,” Mr. Israel said.

The worsening violence has made it imperative that the resolution be passed, he said.

“This would ensure that the U.N. Security Council take action immediately to have President Assad tried before the International Criminal Court for his horrific crimes against humanity,” he added.

Syrian rebels, armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades they seized from the regime, are in a mismatched war against the regime’s better-armed forces. Syrian activists say other nations must arm the rebels.

“The bare minimum is providing assistance to the Free Syrian Army, whether it is providing arms or a safe area,” Ms. Moussa said.

Mr. Ghadbian added: “If the international community does not have the stomach to intervene to protect civilians, then at least they should enable Syrians do that.”

The regime’s soldiers have been selling weapons to the rebels, according to some activists.

“These soldiers think there is no opportunity for the regime to be viable in the future, so they are trying to make easy money,” Dr. Azzawi said.

The Assad regime has shown signs of crumbling as the conflict has dragged on.

It was dealt a significant blow this month with the defection of Gen. Manaf Tlas, a member of Mr. Assad’s inner circle.

Activists expect many more desertions.

“A lot of people are sending us clear messages asking one question: ‘Can you protect our families if we desert the army?’” said Dr. Azzawi. “Large numbers in the army are waiting for the right moment [to defect].”

The regime has responded to the fighting in Damascus by intensifying its crackdown on rebel strongholds across Syria. Its forces have used helicopters, tanks and heavy artillery in recent operations.

In the western city of Homs, residents in four neighborhoods — Jouret Sheiah, Al-Qarabees, Al-Khaldeia, Al-Qosour — have been under siege for more than a month, said Abu Rami, a Homs-based Syrian activist who used his nom de guerre.

Dozens of people have died and more than 400 people have been injured in the recent offensive in Homs. The city is experiencing acute shortages of food and medicine.

Mr. Annan’s diplomatic efforts have not won him many friends in Homs.

“The people in Homs think that Annan is a partner with a killer — Bashar Assad and his regime,” said Abu Rami. “We have had no benefits from his missions, instead there has only been an increase in the massacres.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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