By Column Lynch
Over the past two days, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ridiculed the Arab League monitors he invited into his country to assess the ongoing violence there, and pro-regime elements have mounted an attack against a group of Arab monitors visiting the town of Latakia, according to an Arab League statement.
The U.N.'s undersecretary general for political affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, meanwhile, told the U.N. Security Council in a closed-door meeting today that more than 400 people have died in Syria since the Arab League first deployed its monitors there on Dec. 27 to assess the violence, according to U.S. and U.N. officials.
But the developments have done little to spur action by the U.N. Security Council, which has been unable to act on Syria since early October, when China and Russia vetoed a Western-backed resolution threatening possible sanctions against Damascus if it didn't stop the violence.
Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, continued today to hold off a Western campaign to impose U.N. sanctions against Syria, urging the United States and its European allies to show restraint. "Patience may be the key word now," Churkin told reporters outside the Security Council.
Before Christmas, Russia introduced its own resolution calling for political talks between the government and the opposition. But Moscow has put the conversations on hold until the Arab League concludes its assessment on Jan. 19.
But U.S. and European officials voiced frustration with the slow pace of Russian diplomacy. "We think it is long past time that the council passes a strong resolution that supports the Arab League and all of the elements of the Arab League initiative, including its call for sanctions," Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters today. "Unfortunately, after a bit of a show last month of tabling a resolution, the Russians inexplicably have been more or less AWOL in terms of leading negotiations on the text of that resolution."
The Western case for action -- that it is needed to halt the government's one-sided brutal crackdown on unarmed civilians -- has been complicated by the emergence of an armed opposition movement. Russia has backed Syrian claims that anti-government forces are responsible for a pair terrorist attacks in Damascus recent weeks, though opposition representatives have denied responsibility.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told the Security Council last month than more than 5,000 civilians have been killed since anti-government protests began early last year, most of them at the hands of government security forces. The figures presented to the Security Council today by Pascoe were compiled by Pillay's office, and are based on accounts from local and international human rights groups. Pascoe did not say whether the latest killings were carried out by government forces, or whether they included a terrorist bombing in a crowded intersection in Damascus last week that left at least 25 dead and dozens more injured, according to a U.N. source.
Rice said the current rate of killing, about 40 deaths per day, marked an intensification of the Syrian crackdown from the period preceding the arrival of the Arab League observers. "Syria, rather than using the opportunity of its commitment to the Arab League to end the violence and fulfill all of its commitments, is stepping up the violence despite the presence of monitors," Rice said.
Rice also said the United States is concerned by "reports that at least two of the monitors of the Arab League today -- two Kuwaitis -- were roughed up, harmed, harassed, hurt, in the context of their work."
She also denounced the "vitriol of President Assad's speech today and further belittling by him of the Arab League, which we found offensive." The "entire international community, the United States and all members of the Security Council are united in support of the Arab League initiative," she said.
Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar al Jaafari, countered that the attacks against the Arab monitors were carried out by armed opposition forces, not by pro-government forces. "There is no Syrian interest whatsoever to harm the credibility and the safety and the security of the Arab envoys," he said.
Germany, backed by Britain, sought to ratchet up pressure on Syria, proposing that the Security Council invite Arab League representatives to brief the Security Council on their faltering efforts to rein in its military.
But most council members, including France, said that the council would need to wait until the Arab League filed a formal report on its findings in Syria before considering any fresh action in the council. "Everybody agrees that for the moment the only game in town in political terms is the Arab League mediation," said Gérard Araud, the French U.N. ambassador.