Thirteen Syrian opposition activists were killed today while trying to get foreign journalists out of the besieged city of Homs. President Basher al-Assad’s security forces have now killed more than 7,500 civilians during the revolt against his Baathist regime, a U.N. official said.
Syria’s president may be a war criminal, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today, while a diplomat from neighboring Turkey dismissed the regime’s efforts to “absolve itself of its sins against its own people” by promising democratic reform.
“There are credible reports that the death toll now often exceeds 100 civilians a day, including many women and children,” said Lynn Pascoe, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for political affairs. “The total killed so far is certainly well over 7,500 people,” she told the U.N. Security Council.
The activists died as a result of “a daring and chaotic” effort to smuggle four reporters out of Homs neighborhood, reports suggest:
Syrian security forces ambushed the group, which included about 40 activists as well as the four journalists, overnight Monday as they tried to leave Bab Amr, according to the advocacy group Avaaz, which helped coordinate the rescue attempt. The neighborhood has been a center of resistance to President Basher al-Assad and the main target of his government’s efforts to quell the nearly year-long revolt.
Assad could be declared a war criminal, Clinton said today, but she cautioned that such action could complicate prospects of a resolution of the conflict in Syria.
“Based on definitions of war criminal and crimes against humanity, there would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category,” she told a Senate hearing on the State Department budget.
“People have been putting forth the argument,” Clinton said. “But I also think that from long experience that can complicate a resolution of a difficult, complex situation because it limits options to persuade leaders perhaps to step down from power,” she said.
Syria’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva walked out of today’s session of the U.N. Human Rights Council after demanding that outside parties stop “inciting sectarianism and providing arms” to opposition groups.
International sanctions were preventing Damascus from providing medicines and fuel to needy citizens, said Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, who called on “those alleged friends of the Syrian people ….to stop inciting sectarianism, providing arms and weapons and funding and putting the Syrian people one against the other.”
In Syria’s defense, Russia’s representative cited Western intervention in neighboring Iraq to warn that any attempt to “instill democracy through force is doomed to disaster.”
“Thanks to our work with the Syrian authorities, it was possible to lead them to interact with international humanitarian organizations, but we are not seeing similar signals addressed to the militants,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov.
But U.S. assistant secretary of state Esther Brimmer observed that “Assad and his criminal cohort are waging a brutal campaign of slaughter, bombardment, torture and arrest that has already murdered thousands of women, men and children”.
“Basher al-Assad must go, and there must be a Syrian-led democratic political transition that meets the long-suppressed aspirations of the Syrian people,” she insisted.
Syrian artillery continued to pounded rebel-held areas of Homs, as Assad’s government announced that voters had approved a new constitution in a referendum. Some 89 percent of voters, or nearly 7.5 million of the 8.4 million who cast ballots, voted in favor of the Constitution, state TV reported. Turnout exceeded 57 percent of 14 million eligible voters, according to the regime.
But the poll was immediately discounted by Syrian opposition groups and foreign states.
“The Syrian regime did not keep any of their promises to the Syrian people or international actors like Turkey and Russia,” a Turkish diplomat said. “Assad’s regime, which is massacring its own people, is currently trying to absolve itself of its sins and keep power by claiming it will initiate democratic change, but it’s too late.”
An executive member of the Syrian National Council, the opposition umbrella group, dismissed the poll.
“It is going to be very hard to convince people there is something serious behind it,” said Bassma Kodmani. “It is not going to work because the repression is continuing. They are caught up in this cycle, and it is simply too late.”
Referendums in Syria generally produce the results the government wants, so the huge plurality in favor of the Constitution was unsurprising. Although the government controlled the voting and the count, it was possible that the authorities in Damascus did not need to manipulate the results, since they still enjoy some support and the opposition mostly boycotted the balloting.
The new constitution is “too little, too late,” according to Sami Moubayed, a Syrian analyst who once defended Assad’s reformist credentials.
But the fractured opposition encountered a further setback to its credibility when the formation of a new faction within the SNC highlighted its failure to develop a coherent vision and strategy.
“Syria has experienced long and difficult months since the Syrian National Council was formed without it achieving satisfactory results or being able to activate its executive offices or adopt the demands of the rebels inside Syria,” the Syrian Patriotic Group said in a statement. “The previous mode of operation has been useless. We decided to form a patriotic action group to back the national effort to bring down the regime with all available resistance means including supporting the Free Syrian Army.”
While some activists rejected claims that the new formation signaled a further fracturing of the opposition, observers argued otherwise.
“It’s not a split, and it’s not a new group,” veteran dissident Walid al-Bunni, a leading member of the SNC, told Time magazine. “In the council there are Muslim Brothers, members of the Damascus Declaration, and now there’s the Patriotic Group,” he said. “What’s the problem?”
The latest schism confirms that the SNC is “perilously close to losing any credibility with the activists, protesters and fighters inside Syria…because it is not hawkish enough,” some observers suggest.
“Those on the streets are all to the right of the SNC, and that’s the irony,” says Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They want more forceful action.”
“It’s immaturity, it’s total immaturity,” Hokayem says of the SNC’s fractious nature. “There’s an issue of mismanagement and disorganization that is almost independent from leadership issues. They don’t have the skills to run an organization like this one at a time like this.”
Opposition divisions are likely to be exacerbated as external powers bestow funding, patronage and arms on their favored factions, analysts believe.
“The contest to become the sole representative of the Syrian opposition will continue, as will the likely splintering and formation of new opposition groups,” according to the Stratfor intelligence group: Depending on each opposition faction’s desired outcome in the Syrian crisis, each faction has different countries in mind for foreign aid and support. The question remains whether the opposition groups can meet those specific benefactor countries’ respective requirements to receive aid. As this takes place, the Syrian regime and its allies will benefit from exploiting the many fractures within the opposition movement.