- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2012

United Nations — Russia and China blocked a U.S.-backed effort at the United Nations on Thursday to stop the escalation of Syria’s civil war as Syrian rebels took control of several of their nation’s border crossings with Iraq and Turkey.

U.S. diplomats privately predicted that the Security Council gambit by Russia and China ended any immediate role for the United Nations and could breathe new life into the embattled Syrian government, 16 months after protests erupted to demand an end to President Bashar Assad’s rule.

Mr. Assad, whose whereabouts is unknown, made a brief appearance on state TV on Thursday to swear in a new defense minister one day after three members of the president’s inner circle, including the defense minister, were killed at a high-level security meeting.

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In Damascus, government troops launched a wide-ranging assault to snuff out rebels in the capital. But the military’s failure to swiftly vanquish lightly armed rebel forces and to avert the deadly bombing made Mr. Assad’s hold on power look increasingly tenuous.

Rebel sources say they are preparing for extended clashes in the capital that could last for months.

“There have been training camps along Syria’s borders with Turkey and Lebanon, which have been preparing for this attack for three months,” said a weapons smuggler operating in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon who identified himself only as Hussam. “We have been [transporting troops] into Damascus and surrounding areas for months.”

“There are more to come,” he added.

At the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China vetoed a resolution that threatened sanctions against Mr. Assad if he does not end the use of heavy weapons. The resolution, sponsored by France and Britain, won 11 votes in the 15-member Security Council. Two other nations abstained.

Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted the move by Russia and China “as surreal as it is dangerous.”

“As Rome burns, they’re worried about saving Nero,” Mr. Kerry said.

But Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said that “the vote never should have happened” because “it stood no chance of adoption.”

He added that the U.S., Britain and France are “trying to fan the flames inside the council.”

Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong also blasted the council’s three Western permanent members, saying they tried to “ram” through their resolution as a pretext for a full-fledged military intervention.

“They are up to their old tricks,” he said in reference to U.N. authorization for the NATO campaign that overthrew Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Moscow and Beijing publicly have stated that they intend to prevent such a repeat in Syria.

The fracture in the Security Council was apparent shortly before the vote when the Russian and Chinese ambassadors huddled on the Security Council floor, pointedly avoiding their U.S., British and French counterparts nearby.

British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said he was “appalled” by the double veto, while French representative Gerard Araud insisted that “history will judge Russia and China to be wrong.”

“More than 14,000 innocent Syrians have been killed since Russia and China first vetoed our efforts to stem the violence in October last year,” Mr. Grant said.

But former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton blamed the Obama administration for thinking it could count on the Kremlin to support efforts to overthrow a regime with which it has been allied for more than 40 years.

“These vetoes, just like the last ones, were entirely predictable,” he said. “The Obama administration has based its Syria policy on the fantasy that Russia would cooperate. This was the result.”

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice insisted that Washington “will not be stopped” by the Russian and Chinese actions and will work “outside the U.N.” to address the crisis in Syria.

In Syria, rebel forces took control of all crossings into Iraq on the nation’s eastern border and one into Turkey on the northern border, according to an Iraqi official and Syrian human rights activists.

An unidentified Syrian general also fled to Turkey on Thursday, bringing the number to 21 generals who have escaped from Syria, a Turkish diplomat told Agence France-Presse.

Amateur videos showed the rebels taking over the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, where they stomped on portraits of Mr. Assad and his father, Hafez Assad, who died in 2000 after brutally ruling Syria for three decades.

The whereabouts of Mr. Assad and his family has been a mystery since the bombing killed Defense Minister Dawoud Rajiha, Gen. Assef Shawkat, Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law, and former defense minister Hassan Turkmani.

The attack on the National Security building, where the defense leaders were meeting, impressed many observers who had viewed the Free Syrian Army as little more than a ragtag mob of deserters.

“The FSA must be thrilled to have succeeded in a small victory, but they must feel that they better get their act together,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “It looks like they are winning, and they need to put their best foot forward to look credible.

“This is a staggering blow to the regime at many levels,” he added. “I think it’s a game changer. It weakens the regime operationally and also the spirit [and] confidence of the regime and those who have been sticking with it.”

The rebels began banding together about a year ago with the aim of protecting civilians and demonstrators from the violence of the regime-controlled Syrian army.

Now they have changed, as rebel soldiers have become increasingly aggressive in their operations.
“They are clearly getting support from Saudi Arabia and Turkey in terms of intelligence and other types of technical support and maybe from the USA and the U.K.,” Mr. Salem said.

While there have been reports of high numbers of soldiers defecting from the army and joining the rebels, the main rebel force is thought to be made up of civilians — trained by the regime.

“Civilians have formed the bulk of the FSA since the beginning,” Mr. Salem said. “It is led by officers and some [soldiers who defected], but most of the fighters are civilians. Every Syrian male has been through military training, which is bad news for the regime.”

As fighting continued for a fifth consecutive day in the capital, opposition activists said that government troops have been using mortars, tanks and helicopter gunships in an effort to rid the city and its suburbs of the rebels. The violence has claimed at least 17,000 lives, according to most estimates.

Despite apparent signs of coordinated operations, analysts say, the rebel army is far from unified and lacks any form of central command. As growing numbers of civilians take up arms, even some rebel fighters are wary of the chaos that could follow Mr. Assad’s downfall.

“We have made [records] of the names of villagers with weapons, what they have, their address, and how much ammunition they have,” said a guerrilla in Idlib identified only as Osama.

As the battle drags on in the capital and around the country, the outcome for the people of Syria remains unclear.

“We’re just waiting for freedom, but we’re not scared anymore,” said Abu Issa, the father of an FSA soldier, speaking in Idlib. “God is with us, and our children are fighting.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports. Ashish Kumar Sen reported from Washington, Louise Osborne from Berlin and Bradley Secker from Idlib, Syria.

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