Syria troops push back rebels as UN showdown looms

Posted Jan. 31, 2012, at 8:32 p.m.

BEIRUT — Syrian troops crushed pockets of rebel soldiers Tuesday on the outskirts of Damascus and the U.N. Security Council took up a draft resolution demanding that President Bashar Assad halt the violence and yield power.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Security Council that action to end the violence in Syria would be different from U.N. efforts to pacify Libya.

“I know that some members here may be concerned that the Security Council is headed toward another Libya,” she said. “That is a false analogy.”

“It is time for the international community to put aside our own differences and send a clear message of support to the people of Syria,” Clinton said.

Russia, one of Assad’s strongest backers, has signaled it would veto any U.N. action against Damascus, fearing it could open the door to eventual international military involvement, the way an Arab-backed U.N. resolution led to NATO airstrikes in Libya.

However, the Arab League emphasized that international military action was not being sought.

“We are attempting to avoid any foreign intervention, particularly military intervention” in Syria, Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said. “We have always stressed full respect of the security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian people.”

Russia has stood by Assad as he tries to crush an uprising that began nearly 11 months ago. In October, Moscow vetoed the first Security Council attempt to condemn Syria’s crackdown and has shown little sign of budging in its opposition.

Moscow’s stance is motivated in part by its strategic and defense ties, including weapons sales, with Syria. Russia also rejects what it sees as a a world order dominated by the U.S.

The diplomatic showdown came as Syrian government forces took back control of the eastern suburbs of the capital, Damascus, after rebel soldiers briefly captured the area in a startling advance last week.

The fact that rebels made it to the doorstep of Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power, was a dangerous development for the regime. The military launched a swift offensive Monday and on Tuesday crushed the remaining resistance in Zamalka and Arbeen.

But the suburbs were not entirely quiet. On a government-sponsored media trip, Syrian journalists heard at least seven explosions Tuesday from the eastern suburb of Rankous. It was not clear what caused the blasts.

Violence also was reported in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs in central Syria, a hotbed of opposition to the regime. Activist Mohammed Saleh said he heard hours of shelling and machine-gun fire, and thick black smoke was rising in the distance.

The smoke was believed to be from a pipeline that was struck, but details were not clear. Activists said regime forces’ fire hit the pipeline, but that could not be confirmed.

The U.N. estimated several weeks ago that more than 5,400 people have been killed in the Syrian government crackdown, but has not been able to update the figure. The death toll from Monday’s offensive was around 100 people, making it among the bloodiest days since the uprising began in March, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group.

Activists said Tuesday’s death toll was at least seven, although the LCC put the figure at up to 28. Syria prevents independent reporting, making it difficult to confirm events on the ground.

The bloodshed in Syria has increased in recent days as Western and Arab countries stepped up pressure on Russia over Security Council action.

The draft resolution demands that Assad halt the crackdown and implement an Arab League peace plan that calls for him to hand over power to his vice president and allow creation of a unity government to clear the way for elections.

If Assad fails to comply within 15 days, the council would consider “further measures,” a reference to a possible move to impose economic or other sanctions.

Earlier Tuesday, a French official said the draft U.N. resolution had a “comfortable majority” of support from 10 of the Security Council’s 15 members, meaning Russia or China would have to use their veto power to stop it.

Russia has agreed to negotiate on the draft, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with department rules.

The Syrian uprising, which began with mostly peaceful protests, has become increasingly violent in recent months as army defectors clash with government forces and some protesters take up arms to protect themselves.

The violence has inflamed the sectarian divide in the country, where members of Assad’s Alawite sect dominate the regime despite a Sunni Muslim majority.

Assad’s regime has warned that the turmoil will throw Syria into chaos, religious extremism and sectarian divisions, a message that resonates among Alawites and minority Christians who fear reprisals from the Sunni majority.

On Tuesday, Syrian reporters were taken north of Damascus to see the Sednaya Convent, believed to have been build in A.D. 547. The site was damaged by artillery fire Sunday, in an attack the government blamed on “armed terrorists.” No casualties were reported.

“Providence has salvaged this holy site,” said Sister Verona, the head of the Sednaya Convent.

Also Tuesday, army defectors gained full control of the central town of Rastan after days of intense clashes, according to a town activist who identified himself as Hassan. He refused to give his full name, fearing reprisal.

The town was taken by defectors twice in the past only to be retaken by Syrian troops. Rastan is the hometown of former Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass, who held the post for more than three decades, mostly under Assad’s father and predecessor, the late Hafez Assad.

AP writers Anita Snow at the United Nations, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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