Syrian government forces unleashed another round of heavy artillery barrage on a rebel-held district of the city of Homs, killing 21 and wounding some 340 people, a use of indiscriminate violence that is serving to escalate the pressure on the international coalition known as “Friends of Syria”.
As security forces perpetuate a near-constant barrage of bombardment for the 18th day on Homs, Western powers and the Arab League are preparing for a meeting of the “Friends of Syria” contact group in Tunisia on Friday to pressure Assad to step down. The International Committee of the Rec Cross (ICRC) have been negotiating a pause in the fighting to allow them to bring aid to civilians suffering the horrendous conditions of the Syrian revolution, but the use of deadly force against unarmed civilians is evidence of the reality that the regime is devoid of sentiment. Activists said government forces launched attacks on Homs after rebel fighters holding the opposition Baba Amro district blocked troops from entering. The London-based Syria Network for Human Rights said at least 250 shells and rockets had hit Baba Amro since the morning, leaving 21 dead and many others buried under the rubble. Homs, a city of 1 million, has been at the heart of the uprising against Assad’s 11 year rule.
“There were hundreds of demonstrators at the main square of Hajar al-Aswad and suddenly buses of security police and shabbiha (pro-Assad militia) turned up and started firing into the crowd.” – Abu Abdallah, Syria activist
In response to mounting international pressure to provide military aid to opponents of Assad, US Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham outlined ways – including military aid, though not necessarily with direct US involvement 0 to usher along the oust of Assad. Members of the “Friends of Syria” contact group include foreign ministers from US, France and the European Union. The group was constructed after repeated vetoes by Russia and China of the resolution proposed by the United Nations Security Council. The US has described the contact group as a route around the UN to pressure the Assad regime, that will discuss sanctions, humanitarian support and support for a democratic transition in Syria. Meanwhile, Russia and China have remained fairly resolute in their stance to oppose foreign intervention in Syria, backing Assad’s own program for reform, which has been a mocking attempt at a referendum for a new constitution. The referendum, limiting the term of the presidency, has already begun to crumble and also comes at a period in time in which security forces have unleashed an unfaltering barrage of violence, clearly illustrating the symbolic nature of Assad’s reform agenda.
“We’ll send a clear message to Russia, China and other who are still unsure about how to handle the increasing violence but are up until now unfortunately making the wrong choices.” – Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State
Parallel to the tactics used by his father Hafez in 1982, Bashar al-Assad is under the impression that since indiscriminate violence work then, it can work again. The difference between 1982 and 2012 is that the Syrian uprising is much more widespread, publicized and recognized then the one city uprising of 1982. The use of indiscriminate violence in 1982 was not spoken of until many months afterwards; therefore, there were not perpetuation of domestic anti-government expression because of the knowledge that if one city could be utterly silenced then their risk would go unheeded too. Now, however, the Syrian rebels are widespread, the international community is aware of it and there is an outspoken cry for reform throughout the country that is publicized and supported. This unrelenting force for change, a tidal wave that is growing in size, is also beginning to influence those few allies that Syria still has, such as Russia. The Chief of the Arab League, which has suspended Syria for its crackdown on protesters, said Russia and China might tempter their support for Assad. It is true that Russia will not attend the international meeting on the conflict on Syria; due to the fact that the Syria government will not be represented, but the Russia Foreign Minister is vocalizing his support for a special humanitarian envoy to Syria from the UNSC. Russia has called for Europe, the US and the Arab region to join force and bring together the Syrian opposition and government, without preconditions, to help them agree on reforms. As Russia’s last ally in the Middle East, Russia has been providing arms and tanks for the purpose of protester suppression but this sign, though slight, of willingness to end the violence is a stepping stone to a potential reversion of the former anti-UN intervention policy of Russia.
“There are indications coming from China and to some extent Russia that there may be a change in position.” – Nabil Elaraby, Arab League Secretary-General
Moreover, Chinese leaders will be visiting Turkey where talks are expected to focus on violence in Syria. On Saturday, China said it supporter the Arab League’s proposal to end the conflict and end the Assad regime. The seemingly contradictory stance from China appears to reflect their desire for mediation while remaining averse to UN involvement that could lead to the authorization of force, as happened in Libya. Despite this possibility of Russian and Chinese support, a potential divide at the meeting risks paralyzing the international response to Syria’s conflict as humanitarian crisis widens in part of the country. In contrast to the caution of the US administration over becoming more involved in Syria’s crisis, some Arab states have sought overt support for Syria’s armed opposition. A decision not to press to arm the opposition is likely to push countries in the region, such as the Gulf state of Qatar, to act on their own, funneling funds and arms to various factions in Syria, which could spur regional spillover conflict. However, any multilateral decision to lend support to armed groups in the opposition risks not only antagonizing Russia and China, but also formalizing the sectarian fault lines regionally.