Russia and China jointly cast a veto Saturday in the United Nations Security Council against an Arab League-backed resolution that would have called for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to step down. The vote came in the wake of an alleged massacre in the Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs on Friday night, in which artillery shells allegedly blasted homes and left at least 50 dead (some reports say 4 times that, but cannot be verified). The assault is said by oppositionists to have been revenge by the regime on the area for the defection of Syrian army personnel.
Another 21 civilians are alleged to have been killed on Saturday by security forces, many in the hinterland of Damascus.
Syria’s high officer corps is disproportionately drawn from the Allawi sect, to which the president also belongs. Allawis, a form of Shiite Islam, make up about 10% of the Syrian population, but are more powerful in the ruling Baath Party than their numbers might suggest. There have been no high officer defections, but NCOs and troops from the Sunni branch of Islam (who make up over 70% of the population) have defected, and formed a militia that has ambushed and killed loyalist troops and officers. The regime appears to be holding the families of those defectors hostage or taking revenge on the defectors by targetting the neighborhoods where their clans live.
The BBC Arabic correspondent in Homs, who is embedded with opposition fighters, says that shelling by tanks and artillery continued through the night Friday and into Saturday morning. Bodies were being pulled out of the rubble of smashed houses on Saturday. In the chaos, an exact count of the dead is impossible, but the correspondent put the number at 50 in Homs. The Syrian army appeared to be heading toward the center of Homs, which has been opposition territory for some time.
Russia opposes any UN resolution setting the stage for foreign intervention or “regime change.” Syria was a client state of the old Soviet Union, and is still valued as a client by Russian PM Vladimir Putin, who hopes to return to the presidency next month. Putin wants to look strong by supporting an ally against the West. Moreover, Russia sells military equipment to Syria, and has a naval base on the Mediterranean in that country. It is Russia’s only Mediterannean base, and Putin doesn’t want to lose it. Further, Russia and China had their fingers burned by not opposing the resolution on Libya last year this time, which called for a no-fly zone but which was used by NATO and elements of the Arab League to justify regime change. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, dubbed the BRICS bloc, oppose the idea of American and Western intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries (lest that principle give the West an opening to intervene in the BRICS!).
Liberal internationalist Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, reacted undiplomatically to the Russian vote, calling it “disgusting.” President Obama condemned the alleged massacre at Homs and again called on Bashar al-Assad to step down. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will go to Damascus on Tuesday in order, he says, to see a resolution of the crisis.
Meanwhile, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouqi, a human rights activist elected after that country’s popular revolt against dictator Zain El Abidin Ben Ali, says Tunisia has initiated steps to expel the Syrian ambassador from Tunis and to withdraw its recognition from the al-Assad regime.
The head of the Arab League body representing Arab parliaments also called for Arab states to withdraw recognition from Syria.