Thursday 7 June 2012
UN News: UN chief ups pressure on Damascus
There is little evidence that Syria’s government is complying with an international peace plan to end violence, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says.
After briefing the Security Council, he warned there was an “imminent” danger of civil war in Syria and it could go from tipping point to breaking point.
But he stressed that the peace plan by UN envoy Kofi Annan remained “at the centre of our focus”.
His comments come after reports that 78 people were killed in central Syria.
At the request of the Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will soon put forward a range of options for resolving the crisis in Syria.
“No one can predict how the situation in Syria will evolve. We must be prepared for any eventuality; we must be ready to respond to many possible scenarios,” Mr. Ban told reporters at UN Headquarters in New York on Thursday afternoon. “At the request of the Security Council, I will soon present a variety of options for the way ahead.”
“It is up to the members of the Council to find common cause. But let me say here that we need bolder action,” Mr. Ban added. “We must speak with one voice … we must deliver a clear and unmistakable message: The violence must stop, on both sides. We need a peaceful transition that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people.”
The Secretary-General – accompanied by the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League for the Syrian Crisis, Kofi Annan, and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Nabil Elaraby – was addressing the media following a briefing to the Council on Syria. Earlier in the day, the three men had addressed an informal meeting of the General Assembly on the same topic.
The UN estimates that some 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria and tens of thousands displaced since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began some 15 months ago.
In his remarks to the media, the Secretary-General said the six-point peace plan put forward in March by Joint Special Envoy Annan, and endorsed by the Council, remains at the centre of efforts of resolve the crisis – but “at the same time, in view of the deteriorating situation, I would welcome further international discussions.”
The UN chief said the upcoming summit of the Group of 20 on 18-19 June in Los Cabos, Mexico, will provide an important opportunity to discuss the crisis in depth.
The six-point plan calls for an end to violence, access for humanitarian agencies to provide relief to those in need, the release of detainees, the start of inclusive political dialogue that takes into account the aspirations of the Syrian people, and unrestricted access to the country for the international media.
The Secretary-General said that along with Joint Special Envoy Annan and Arab League Secretary-General Elaraby, he has seen little evidence of the Syrian Government complying with its commitments under the six-point peace plan, while at the same time, the opposition is hardening and turning increasingly to arms.
“Terrorists are exploiting the chaos,” Mr. Ban said. “Gross human rights violations are multiplying.”
Noting that the killings in Syria over recent weeks is indicative of a pattern that may amount to crimes against humanity, the UN chief said the confrontations in certain areas of the country have taken on the character of an internal conflict, subject to international humanitarian law and possible war crimes prosecution.
In late May, more than 100 men, women and children were massacred in the town of Houla, and earlier Thursday, there were reports of large-scale killings in the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir, near Hama. Observers with the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) have been trying to verify the latest massacre reports – but have so far been obstructed in their attempts.
Amid growing atrocities and little evidence that the Syrian Government is living up to its commitment to stop the ongoing violence, United Nations officials today urged the world community to act with one voice to end the crisis in the Middle Eastern country.
“Syria is at a pivotal moment. And so are we,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moontold a meeting of the General Assembly. “Syria and the region can quickly move from tipping point to breaking point. The dangers of full-scale civil war are imminent and real.”
Today’s meeting comes in the wake of the recent massacre in Houla, where 108 people, including 49 children, many of whom were under the age of 10, were killed, as well as reports of large-scale killings in Mazraat al-Qubeir, near Hama, which the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) is currently trying to verify.
“We condemn this unspeakable barbarity and renew our determination to bring those responsible to account,” said Mr. Ban, who added that UN observers, who were initially denied access, are working now to get to the scene. While trying to do so, they were shot at with small arms.
“We join forces at a grave and grievous hour,” he stated. “The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. Each day seems to bring new additions to the grim catalogue of atrocities.”
There is “too little evidence,” he said, that the Syrian Government is living up to its commitments under the six-point plan presented by Kofi Annan, the Joint Special Envoy of the UN and the League of Arab States for the Syrian Crisis, and many elements of the opposition have declared they will no longer respect the plan.
The plan calls for an end to violence, access for humanitarian agencies to provide relief to those in need, the release of detainees, the start of inclusive political dialogue that takes into account the aspirations of the Syrian people, and unrestricted access for the international media.
“The inability of either the regime or the opposition to engage in any meaningful political dialogue makes the prognosis extremely grave. And the longer this conflict goes on, the more difficult the path toward peace and eventual reconciliation will become,” warned Mr. Ban. “The international community must recognize these realities – and act, with unity and collective will.”
He added that the so-called ‘Annan Plan’ remains the centrepiece of these efforts. “We must continue to support it with stronger steps to ensure compliance… No one can predict how the situation in Syria will evolve. We must be prepared for any eventuality. We must be ready to respond to many possible scenarios.”
Mr. Annan reported to the Assembly that, despite the acceptance of the six-point plan and the deployment of UN observers to Syria, the plan is not being implemented.
“It is your shared interest – and our collective responsibility – to act quickly. The process cannot be open-ended. The longer we wait, the more radicalized and polarized the situation will become, and the harder it will be to forge a political settlement,” said Mr. Annan.
“The international community has united, but it now must take that unity to a new level. We must find the will and the common ground to act – and act as one. Individual actions or interventions will not resolve the crisis.
“As we demand compliance with international law and the six-point plan, it must be made clear that there will be consequences if compliance is not forthcoming,” said the envoy. “If we genuinely unite behind one process, and act and speak with one voice, I believe it is still possible to avert the worst and enable Syria to emerge from this crisis.”
General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser urged all Member States to unite in cooperating with the Joint Special Envoy and to impress upon the Syrian Government and all parties the need for a cessation of violence in all its forms, and for a rapid and peaceful solution to end the crisis.
“We need to have a frank and results-oriented discussion on Syria. Time is pressing. The lives of tens of thousands of Syrians, and the stability of the region, are at stake. The credibility of this Organization is also at stake,” Mr. Al-Nasser stated.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed that the serious deterioration of the human rights situation being witnessed in Syria demands the full attention and engagement of Member States.
“People are dying as we speak,” she said in a statement that was delivered by the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonovic.
“I urge the international community to unite here in the General Assembly, as well as in the Security Council, and to speak with one voice to all Syrians – including the Government and armed opponents – in order to convince them to pull back from the brink and begin genuine negotiations for a peaceful process of change. There would be a terrible cost for not doing so.”
The Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Nabil Al Araby, said that the League does not call for the Security Council to resort to the use of force or military options, but rather for using political, economic and commercial pressures enshrined in the UN Charter.
“I call for backing and supporting the measures incorporated in the six points to end this crisis and to achieve a peaceful, political solution that will enable the Syrian people to live in freedom and democracy,” he said. “It is not acceptable, ethically, that the Syrian people continue to suffer.”
Mr. Ban and Mr. Annan are also scheduled to brief the Security Council later today on the situation in Syria.
United Nations observers in Syria have been obstructed in their attempts to reach the village of Mazraat al-Qubeir today, to verify reports of large-scale killings there.“Their mission is being obstructed by three factors: First, they are being stopped at Syrian Army checkpoints and in some cases turned back; second, some of our patrols are being stopped by civilians in the area; thirdly, we are receiving information from residents of the area that the safety of our observers is at risk if we enter the village,” the head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), Major-General Robert Mood, said in a statement.
“Despite these challenges, the observers are still working to get into the village to try to establish the facts on the ground,” he added.
According to media reports, Syrian activists claim that Government troops and militiamen massacred at least 78 villagers in Mazraat al-Qubeir, located near the city of Hama. UNSMIS dispatched observers to the site early Thursday – while trying to reach the village, they were also shot at with small arms.
The UN estimates that some 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Syria and tens of thousands displaced since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began some 15 months ago.
In his statement, Major-General Mood also noted UNSMIS’ concern about the restriction imposed on its movement “as it will impede our ability to monitor, observe and report.”
The Security Council established UNSMIS in April to monitor the cessation of violence in Syria, as well as monitor and support the full implementation of a peace plan put forward by the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League for the Syrian Crisis, Kofi Annan.
The plan calls for an end to violence, access for humanitarian agencies to provide relief to those in need, the release of detainees, the start of inclusive political dialogue that takes into account the aspirations of the Syrian people, and unrestricted access to the country for the international media.
Later today, Mr. Annan will brief the General Assembly in person, followed by the Security Council and the media, on the latest developments in Syria. Also speaking in the Assembly meeting will be President of the General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Nabil Al Araby.
A fascist killing machine is working its way over our people’s bodies. It is a ruthless machine, which tramples anything in its destructive path, irrespective of age, sex or creed. On this path to oblivion it has massacred women and children, the elderly, the innocence of childhood, humanity, dignity and our country, Syria. It refuses to speak the language of reason; instead it spews bullets and mortars on anyone that dares to speak out. Yesterday, on Wednesday 6/6/2012, this brutal machine crushed the body and soul of the villages of Reef Hama; its inhabitants were forced to pay the ultimate price for daring to ask for a brighter future.
The regime has brought a cycle of death and destruction that has once again thrown our army into a battle in which all sides are losers; the largest loss being the unity of the Syrian people. Without the slightest hesitation the regime continues to deepen the chasms within our society, pitting brother against brother.
In such tragic times that befall our nation and people, we can only direct our cries once more to our soldiers, and say: “We are your brothers and sisters! Put down your weapons, for they are aimed at your family. Refuse to raise your gun, for it is pointed at yourself! Join us in retrieving this country to its rightful owners, the people. For we have always stood by you, our soldiers and brothers, when you retrieved our honour and defended our country.”
At the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, we condemn in the strongest of words the atrocious crimes and massacres committed by the Syrian regime in Hama and the other areas of our country. We condole ourselves and express our condolences to all Syrians. Whoever dies in Syria unjustly, whatever their affiliation, we know and feel to be our martyr. Syria is for Syrians, and has a heart big enough for all Syrians.
We therefore promise to work tirelessly and use all means possible to maintain the unity of the Syrian people until we topple this fascistic regime.
Down with murder and murderers!
Eternity to our martyrs and strength to their families!
Freedom for all the prisoners of conscience!
Freedom for our people! Freedom for Syria!
Victory for our just revolution!
[local time] 21:41 China said Thursday it was firmly opposed to “outside armed intervention” in Syria or “any attempt to forcibly promote regime change” amid mounting violence in the country, Xinhua reported.
20:59 UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said on Thursday that the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon who have been registered with the UN reached 27500 people.
20:52 Casualties reported in the shelling of Daraa’s Tafas by Syrian security forces, Al-Jazeera quoted activists as saying on Thursday.
20:52 The United Nations urged on Thursday “a much stronger commitment” to Syrian refugees who have fled the violence in their country to neighboring countries.
20:17 Thursday’s death toll in Syria rose to more than 30 people, Al-Jazeera reported.
20:15 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Thursday vowed there would be no UN Security Council mandate for outside intervention in Syria, indicating Moscow would use its veto to block any military action.
19:41 The White House on Thursday condemned the “outrageous” killing of civilians in a central Syrian village as an “affront to human dignity and justice.”
19:35 No UN monitors were injured after they came under fire in the Syrian village of Al-Kubeir, a told AFP Thursday.
19:34 European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Thursday condemned the “horrendous” and “unforgivable” massacres of citizens in Syria.
19:00 At least 15 people, including 11 civilians, were killed across Syria on Thursday, a watchdog said, a day after at least 55 were slaughtered in a new massacre near the central city of Hama.
18:29 Expressing horror at the latest massacre in Syria, UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan told the major powers on Thursday that it was time to threaten “consequences” if President Bashar al-Assad does not act to halt the strife.
18:14 The opposition Syrian National Council meets in Istanbul to choose a new leader this weekend with insiders saying Kurdish activist Abdel Basset Sayda has emerged as a consensus candidate.
17:35 UN monitors trying to get to the scene of a new massacre in Syria were shot at, UN leader Ban Ki-moon said Thursday, calling the latest atrocity “shocking and sickening.”
16:23 Qatar’s prime minister urged the international community Thursday to speed up its search for a solution bringing a “peaceful transfer of power” in Syria, as he met French President Francois Hollande.
15:49 Syrian security forces killed 23 people on Thursday, Al-Jazeera quoted activists as saying.
15:47 The charred bodies of women and children lay scattered in houses across farmland in central Syria on Thursday after a brutal massacre allegedly carried out by pro-regime militiamen, a witness told AFP.
14:54 Syrian troops and local residents are preventing UN observers from reaching a site where 55 people were reported killed by pro-regime militants, the head of the UN mission in Syria said Thursday.
14:37 The next meeting of the Friends of Syria group will take place on July 6 in Paris, the French foreign ministry said Thursday.
14:20 Russia on Thursday said a new massacre in Syria in which at least 55 civilians were reported killed was a provocation aimed at undermining the faltering peace plan of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.
14:14 The Syrian army is preventing UN observers from reaching a farmland region where at least 55 people were reportedly killed by militants loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, activists said Thursday.
14:02 Al-Arabiya television is broadcasting live footage of the shelling targeting Homs’ Talbisa.
13:43 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday condemned the latest onslaught of violence sponsored by the regime in Syria and said President Bashar al-Assad had to go.
13:00 A YouTube video shows an eyewitness speaking with Al-Arabiya television about a “massacre” that was reportedly committed in the village of Al-Kubeir in Syria’s Hama. The eyewitness, identified as Laith, said that the town was raided at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday by security forces and shabiha militants, adding they “killed children and women and burned their bodies.”
12:15 At least 55 people, mostly from the same family, have been killed in a new massacre in Syria, the head of a watchdog told AFP on Thursday.
12:10 Syrian forces on Thursday killed 11 people, Al-Jazeera television quoted the Syrian Network for Human Rights as saying.
11:32 Syrian army on Thursday shelled Homs’ Talbisa, leaving dozens of people wounded, Al-Jazeera television quoted the General Commission of the Syrian Revolution as saying.
11:27 Syria’s main opposition group on Thursday called for stepped up military assaults against regime forces following reports of a new massacre of civilians in the central province of Hama.
11:18 The international community has to do more to isolate the Syrian regime after the latest “brutal and sickening” massacre in the country, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday.
10:20 Syrian forces on Thursday raided Hama’s neighborhood of Kazo and arrested dozens of people, Al-Jazeera television quoted activists as saying.
10:08 Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood on Thursday accused the Damascus regime of being behind a new massacre in the strife-torn country and said the world community, including Arab nations, also bear responsibility.
8:30 MORNING LEADER: Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “massacred” about 100 people including women and children, the opposition said, as the US demanded a full transfer of power in the country.
The head of the UN has said monitors trying to reach the Syrian village of Qubair, where 78 people are said to have been killed, were fired upon.
None were hurt in the shooting but they have pulled back for the night.
Addressing the UN General Assembly, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the “killing of innocents” at Qubair as “shocking and sickening”.
Envoy Kofi Annan told the UN Security Council the crisis could soon “spiral out of control”, diplomats said.
Mr Annan earlier told the General Assembly his six-point peace plan was not being implemented despite having been accepted by Damascus.
Opposition activists blame the killings at Qubair on pro-government forces but the government accuses “terrorists”.
The White House said it strongly condemned “the outrageous targeted killings of civilians including women and children” in Qubair.
But both China and Russia repeated their opposition to outside intervention in Syria.
The UN has 297 unarmed observers in Syria to verify the implementation of a peace plan negotiated by Mr Annan. It includes a ceasefire, meant to have taken effect in mid-April.
‘Killing of innocents’
“I just learned a few minutes ago that while trying to [enter Qubair], the UN monitors were shot at with small arms,” Mr Ban told the 193-state assembly in New York.“Any regime or leader that tolerates such killing of innocents has lost its fundamental humanity,” he said.
Addressing a special closed meeting of the Security Council, Mr Annan urged world powers to warn President Bashar al-Assad of “clear consequences” if he did not comply with the six-point peace plan, diplomats said.
Sausan Ghosheh, spokesperson for the UN observer mission in Syria, told the BBC the monitors had been sent home for the night.
“We’re here serving the flag of the United Nations… until now we’re lucky no-one has been injured,” she said.
Speaking earlier in Syria, UN mission chief Gen Robert Mood said Syrian troops had blocked access to Qubair, which is near the western city of Hama.
In a statement, the White House said the killings, coupled with the “Syrian regime’s refusal to let UN observers into the area”, were “an affront to human dignity and justice”.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said the situation in Syria was “rapidly deteriorating” into sectarian violence.
China’s envoy to the UN, Li Baodong, said: “We resolutely oppose the solutions to the Syrian crisis through outside armed intervention or any attempt to forcibly promote regime change.”
Analysis: Jim Muir BBC News, Beirut
The carnage at Houla, and now Qubair, has injected a dangerous new element into an explosive situation.
The shabiha militia is almost entirely drawn from the Alawite community, the minority to which President Assad and his ruling clan belong. Most of the victims are from the majority Sunni community in which the uprising is to a large extent based.
There has always been a latent sectarian strand to the crisis but this threatens to pitch the country into open confessional civil war of the kind that tore neighbouring Lebanon apart for decades.
That is the disastrous prospect that looms if the world powers cannot find some way of clawing the country back from the brink.
U.N. monitors came under fire on Thursday while trying to investigate reports of a new massacre that raised the pressure on world powers struggling to halt the carnage in Syria, where a U.N.-Arab League peace plan has all but collapsed.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described as “unspeakable barbarity” the reported killing of at least 78 villagers by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Speaking at a special session of the U.N. General Assembly on Syria, international envoy Kofi Annan acknowledged his peace plan was not working and said there must be “consequences” for those who do not comply with it.
Ban said hopes for consolidating the peace plan were fading and Annan himself warned the U.N. Security Council that the crisis in Syria could soon spiral out of control, diplomats said. Annan, Ban’s predecessor as U.N. Secretary General, called for “substantial pressure” on Damascus to stop the violence.
Opposition activists said up to 40 women and children were among those killed in the Sunni Muslim village of Mazraat al-Qubeir on Wednesday, posting film on the Internet of bloodied or charred bodies.
“There was smoke rising from the buildings and a horrible smell of human flesh burning,” said a Mazraat al-Qubeir resident who told how he had watched Syrian troops and “shabbiha” gunmen attack his village as he hid in his family’s olive grove.
“It was like a ghost town,” he told Reuters by telephone, asking not to be identified because he feared for his safety.
“After the shabbiha and tanks left, the first thing I did was run to my house. It was burned. All seven people from my house were killed. I saw bodies on the stairs, the bathroom and bedroom. They were all burned,” the witness said.
The latest killings, less than two weeks after 108 men, women and children were slain in the town of Houla, piled pressure on world powers to stop the bloodshed in Syria. They have been paralyzed by rifts pitting Western and most Arab states against Assad’s defenders in Russia, China and Iran.
Despite growing pressure on Moscow, those rifts appeared no closer to resolution on Thursday as leaders of a bloc grouping China, Russia and Central Asian states called for dialogue to resolve the Syria conflict, rather than any firmer action by the Security Council.
The latest reports from the ground cast a long shadow over a day of consultations and debate on Syria at the United Nations.
“Today’s news reports of another massacre in (Mazraat) al-Qubeir … are shocking and sickening,” Ban told the 193-nation assembly. “A village apparently surrounded by Syrian forces. The bodies of innocent civilians lying where they were, shot. Some allegedly burned or slashed with knives.
Ban said U.N. monitors, in Syria to check compliance with a truce declared by Annan on April 12 but never implemented, had come under small-arms fire on their way to Mazraat al-Qubeir.
There was no mention of any of the monitors being injured.
The chief of the monitoring mission, General Robert Mood, said Syrian troops and civilians had barred the team, stopping them at checkpoints and turning them back. Officials said the monitors would try again on Friday to visit the site.
A Syrian official denied reports from the village, telling the state news agency that residents had asked security forces for help after “terrorists” killed nine women and children.
Assad, who has yet to comment on Wednesday’s violence, decried the Houla killings as “monstrous” and denied his forces were responsible.
Video purportedly from Mazraat al-Qubeir showed the bodies of at least a dozen women and children wrapped in blankets or white shrouds, as well as the remains of burned corpses.
“These are the children of the Mazraat al-Qubeir massacre … Look, you Arabs and Muslims, is this a terrorist?” asks the cameraman, focusing on a dead infant’s face. “This woman was a shepherd, and this was a schoolgirl.”
A Hama-based activist using the name Abu Ghazi listed more than 50 names of victims, many from the al-Yateem family, but said some burned bodies could not be identified. The bodies of between 25 and 30 men were taken away by the killers, he said.
Shabbiha, drawn mostly from Assad’s minority Alawite sect that is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, have been blamed for the killings of civilians from the Sunni Muslim majority. That has raised fears of an Iraq-style sectarian bloodbath and worsened tensions between Shi’ite Iran and mainly Sunni-led Arab states.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters there was evidence of “escalating criminality” by pro-government forces. “Syria is clearly on the edge … of deeper violence, of deep sectarian violence; village against village, pro-government militias against opposition areas and of looking more like Bosnia in the 1990s than of Libya last year,” he said.
Events in Syria’s 15-month-old uprising are difficult to verify due to tight state curbs on international media access.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was willing to work with all U.N. Security Council members, including Russia, on a conference on Syria’s political future, but made clear that Assad must go and his government be replaced with a democratic one.
Moscow has used its U.N. Security Council veto and other tools to protect Assad, who has given Russia a firm foothold in the Middle East and is a buyer of Russian weapons.
A senior Russian diplomat said Moscow would accept a Yemen-style power transition in Syria if it were decided by the people, referring to a deal under which Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in February after a year of unrest.
“The Yemen scenario was discussed by the Yemenis themselves. If this scenario is discussed by Syrians themselves and is adopted by them, we are not against it,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Russia “most decisively condemns the barbarous acts of violence” reported on Wednesday but he did not assign blame.
Rebel groups in Syria say they are no longer bound by Annan’s truce plan and want foreign weapons and other support.
Western leaders, wary of new military engagements in the Muslim world, have offered sympathy but shown no appetite for taking on Assad’s military, supplied by Russia and Iran.
Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin warned countries arming Syria’s opposition that such weapons could end up in the hands of “terrorists.”
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Arshad Mohammed in Istanbul; Peter Griffiths in London, Andrew Quinn at the United Nations and Balazs Koranyi, Gleb Bryanski and Chris Buckley; Writing by Alistair Lyon and Claudia Parsons; Editing by Michael Roddy and Doina Chiacu)
Tattooed youths with AK-47s descend from hilltops onto villages pounded by Syrian artillery and break into homes, slit the throats of women and children or hack them to death. They leave, sometimes carrying bodies to hide traces of the massacre.
Accounts like this from witnesses and opposition campaigners are heard with mounting frequency in north and central Syria, centers of the 15-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
Invariably, activists blame the feared “shabbiha” militia, the most ruthless opponents of the uprising.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an opposition group documenting Assad’s crackdown on the revolt, said shabbiha militiamen entered the tiny Sunni Muslim village of Mazraat al-Qubeir on Wednesday after tanks shelled houses and phone lines were cut.
They killed at least 78 civilians and took away 37 bodies, according to the organization.
Security forces bussed in the shabbiha from nearby Alawite villages, it said, the same pattern that was seen in the Sunni Muslim town of Houla two weeks ago and – on a lesser but no less gruesome scale – on the outskirts of Homs, Syria’s third largest city.
Syrian authorities have blamed foreign-backed Islamist “terrorist groups” for the killings.
From humble beginnings as a smuggling and blackmail racket set up by Assad’s relatives in the coastal city of Latakia, the shabbiha have grown into feared militia death squads blamed for the worst atrocities in the revolt.
The protests, now coupled with an armed insurgency against 42 years of family rule by Assad and his late father, pit the ruling elite, from the country’s minority Alawite sect, an off shoot of Shi’ite Islam, against the Sunni-led protest movement.
As Assad increasingly turned to his relatives to strengthen his grip on the majority Sunni Muslim country after inheriting power in 2000, the shabbiha began appearing in Latakia and the nearby Alawite Mountains.
Cousins of Assad drove blacked-out Mercedes S class cars, nicknamed “shabbah” or ghosts, with an arsenal of rifles aboard, forcing their way aggressively through the traffic. The name caught on and was adopted by the gunmen to describe themselves as they expanded their racket.
They swiftly developed with state support into a fully-fledged militia after the uprising. Directed by the security forces or ruling Baath Party officials, they put down demonstrations in cities across the country, often by killing demonstrators with live bullets.
At pro-government rallies in Damascus and other cities earlier this year, shabbiha members carried banners that read: “Assad: We are your shabbiha forever,” and “Assad: your name is etched on our AK-47s.”
At the beginning of the revolt, security forces recruited thousands of Sunni Muslims to reinforce the shabbiha’s Alawite core, especially after Assad released thousands from jail in a general amnesty last year.
The shabbiha, however, have became more dependent on recruitment from the Alawite community as the revolt became more militarized and rebels began targeting Assad’s forces, according to opposition sources and diplomats following the uprising.
The massacres – and the increasing risk of being assassinated by rebels – have also put off many Sunnis, although their pay at one point reached $100 a day, a fortune in a country where average salaries are $200 to $300 a month.
“The shabbiha have become a localized Alawite militia present mostly in mixed areas. Their mission is to terrorize the civilian population and conduct ethnic cleansing,” said a diplomat.
Activists say the drive to recruit, arm and train shabbiha from the Alawite villages, many as young as 15 years old, increased as more Sunnis abandoned the militia.
“The shabbiha are driven by a feeling of impunity – that they can kill as many Sunnis as they can while Russia’s support for the regime removes any possibility of international intervention,” said Fawaz Tello, a veteran opposition activist who fled Syria last year.
But the militia is taking hits. Lack of Sunni support has all but forced the shabbiha out of the city of Deir al-Zor, where they were instrumental in putting down demonstrations against Assad last year.
“The shabbiha have become nearly extinct in Deir al-Zor. They have dwindled from several thousands to a few hundred,” said Abu Qahtan, an opposition activist in the city.
“Even the criminal elements among them have switched sides and the nature of the tribal society in Deir al-Zor did not allow killings by regime forces to go unpunished without serious retribution,” he added
The activist, who was not using his real name for fear of arrest, said the Alawite core of the shabbiha forces was “imbued with an ideology that killing Sunnis corrects a historic wrong”, namely the marginalization of the Alawite minority.
“The Alawites, in a way, were mostly at the lower end of the social ladder in Syria, but that has not been true since they took over power five decades ago and I am not sure what wrong the present Sunnis did to the Alawites.”
In Damascus, residents and activists said the proportion of Sunnis in the shabbiha had dwindled after 11 shabbiha were assassinated in the staunchly conservative Sunni Damascus district of Maidan during the past two months.
“Even Sunni shabbiha are sometimes being liquidated by Alawite shabbiha because they deem them not trustworthy,” said Damascus-based activist Raed al-Shami.
“You don’t find Damascenes but you still find Sunnis in the shabbiha, especially criminals released last year,” he said, adding that most Alawite shabbiha recruitment in Damascus came from the hilltop Alawite neighborhoods of Qudsaya, Sitta Watmanin, Mezze Jabal and Ish al-Warwar.
In the Sunni Muslim city of Hama, just 20 km (12 miles) east of the location where activists reported a massacre on Wednesday, a potent force of about 3,000 shabbiha remain in position.
“The shabbiha in Hama city are from the Alawite villages around. There is one Sunni village, Qahtaneh, that is all shabbiha, because they follow a general in the security apparatus who runs a smuggling racket with the blessing of the regime,” said activist Raed Farhoud.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)
- U.N. monitors fail to reach site of Syria killings
- Assad’s blood-soaked battle for Syria
- U.N. says reported new massacre in Syria barbaric, urges peace
International mediator Kofi Annan warned the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that the Syriacrisis will soon spiral out of control and called for “substantial pressure” on Damascus and consequences for undermining his peace plan, diplomats said.
Annan briefed the closed-door session of the Security Council along with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said hopes for consolidating Annan’s six-point peace plan for Syria were fading amid unrelenting violence between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and opposition fighters, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
Guardian: Assad regime has lost humanity – UN
The Syrian regime has “lost its fundamental humanity” and no longer has any legitimacy, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said on Thursday as he described a massacre of around 90 villagers as “shocking and sickening” and demanded that the killers be brought to account.
Using some of the strongest language yet to condemn the government ofBashar al-Assad, Ban said UN monitors were shot at trying to get to the scene of the massacre on Wednesday.
The massacre, in the hamlet of al-Qubair, near Syria‘s fourth city of Hama, comes less than three weeks after more than 100 people were killed in Houla – an event that has sharply increased sectarian tensions and appears to be sending the country sliding towards civil war.
A loyalist civilian militia known as the Shabiha was widely accused of carrying out the Houla killings. Witnesses to the massacre in al-Qubair insisted that the Shabiha, whose members are largely from the ruling Alawite sect, had again been responsible.
Ban said the village had apparently been surrounded by Syrian forces. “The bodies of innocent civilians lying where they were, shot. Some were allegedly burned or slashed with knives,” he said, adding that “each day seems to bring new additions to the grim catalogue of atrocities”. Ban said it has been evident for many months that President Assad and his government “have lost all legitimacy”, and added that “any regime or leader that tolerates such killing of innocents has lost its fundamental humanity”.
Soon after Ban’s address to the UN general assembly, Kofi Annan, the envoy he dispatched to Syria, conceded that his battered peace plan was flatlining.
UN diplomats said Annan is urging the divided security council to unite and act immediately to press the Syrian government to implement his peace plan. The diplomats said Annan told council members that there must be consequences – usually a codeword for sanctions – for opponents of his six-point plan.
Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, warned that the Annan peace plan was in serious trouble, and said Syria was on the edge of a worse and more bloody phase than seen so far.
Hague said: “The Annan plan won’t last indefinitely. Syria is clearly on the edge … of deeper violence, of deep, sectarian violence, village against village, pro-government militias against opposition areas, and of looking more like Bosnia in the 1990s than like Libya last year.
“The Annan plan has clearly failed so far, but it is not dead – all hope for it is not lost.”
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said America was prepared to work with Assad’s closest ally, Russia, on a plan that would oust him but potentially leave his regime intact.
David Cameron, who has so far failed in his attempt to soften Moscow’s unwavering support for Damascus, said: “It really is appalling, what is happening in that country, and I want to see concerted action from the international community.”
Two men who saw parts of the al-Qubair massacre claim that Shabiha militiamen whom they knew personally passed by with loyalist troops minutes before the killing started.
At face value, Wednesday’s attack has stark similarities with the massacre in Houla on 25 May, where the bulk of those killed were women and children.
The attacks on civilian homes in al-Qubair and in Houla also appear to have been launched after shelling from tanks. Women and children have again accounted for many of the deaths, witnesses say.
Abu Hisham al-Hamawi, a resident of the Mazraat area, whose home is on the outskirts of al-Qubair, said he saw Shabiha militiamen from nearby Alawite villages pass by his home on the way to al-Qubair minutes before the attack.
“I knew some of them from school,” he said. “I know their names, I know their villages. I know exactly who they are. They are Shabiha, no doubt. They passed by here with the regime army.”
He said that Mazraat had not been a politically active area during the 16-month uprising, nor had it been a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army, which continues to battle loyalist forces on most days. “This is a farming community,” he said.
“They are very poor people – a lot of them are shepherds. There are only a few families in the village and all of them are now dead.”
Mazraat al-Qubair is near four Alawite villages, placing it in the demographically sensitive heart of Syria’s uprising. “But we have never had a problem with them before now,” said Abu Hisham.
“We have not even had a relationship, or any tensions. This is the first time there has been any fighting in this area. This is the first time the army has attacked us. But in the region around us, the Shabiha is very strong. So is the regime army.”
A second witness, who did not want to be named, said shelling of the area had started at around 2pm.
He said gunfire then followed around 2.45pm, lasting for 30 minutes, before a second burst of fire later in the afternoon.
The man said there were no more than 25 homes in the village, most belonging to the Ulwan family. He said tanks moved in after the firing had stopped, levelling some of the homes. Some houses were then burned. “Some survivors tried to run away, but they shot at them in the olive orchards. There are still bodies there that no one can reach.”
A third witness, Laith al-Hamawi, said he heard and saw the attack from 800 metres away. “They came from the Alawite villages, like Asseela, al-Bayat, al-Sakina,” he said. “I saw the tanks enter the village and I knew some of the Shabiha personally.”
Syria denied that its forces had been responsible for the latest deaths, again blaming terrorist groups, which it claims are outmanoeuvring its armed forces and slaughtering civilians.
That account was strongly challenged by witnesses, who said they had not seen any extremists in the area and claimed none could enter because of the tightly guarded Alawite villages and the heavy presence of regime troops.
“They are the terrorists,” said Abu Hisham of the regime. “Their troops, intelligence agencies and loyalists. They want to install fear into our hearts.”
Syria, home to a large Sunni majority, has been ruled for more than 40 years by an offshoot of Shia Islam, known as the Alawites. Sunnis have formed the backbone of the Syrian uprising, which was inspired by the Arab awakenings, but has since slowly transformed into a grinding series of battles with deep sectarian undertones.
“Syrian Sunnis don’t want a war in Syria,” said Abu Hisham. “Syrian Alawites want one because it’s a war they can win. They have all the support, all the big weapons. If it happens, we will be the losers. We will be exterminated.”