Russia eyes changes on U.N. Assembly’s Syria draft; Ghalioun re-elected SNC chief


Russia has asked for a number of changes to a draft resolution on the crisis in Syria scheduled for a U.N. General Assembly vote on Thursday, diplomats said Wednesday, as the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) re-elected Burhan Ghalioun as its chief.

Meanwhile, Syrian armored forces attacked Deraa on Thursday to try to stamp out Free Syrian Army rebels in the city where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule began last March, residents and opposition activists said, according to Reuters.

The sound of explosions and machinegun fire echoed through the city’s al-Balad, al-Mahatta and al-Sad districts as government troops attacked rebels, who responded by firing at army roadblocks and buildings housing security police and militiamen, they said. Deraa lies on the border with Jordan.

The General Assembly is to vote on a measure condemning repression in Syria, just days after Russia and China joined forces to derail a similar text in the U.N. Security Council.

One of the amendments Russia wants is on a paragraph referring to the Arab League plan of Jan. 22 that calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his vice president. Moscow opposes any change to the regime imposed from outside, according to AFP.

Another change would link the return of Syrian troops to their barracks to an “end of attacks by armed groups against state institutions.” Russia has insisted on acknowledging an opposition role in the violent unrest.

Russia also wants the opposition “to dissociate themselves from armed groups engaged in acts of violence,” and not mention Syrian government abuses against civilians.

“If you remember their (Russian) amendments to the Security Council resolution, they look pretty familiar,” a western diplomat commented, referring to the draft that was vetoed in the Security Council Feb. 4. In the end Russia vetoed the draft as did China.

The Arab group, which is formally responsible for the draft in the General Assembly, declined to include the Russian changes. But that does not stop the Russian envoy in theory from trying to get the Assembly to include a few changes on Thursday.

In April, Assad scrapped emergency rule in force since 1963, when the Baathists took power in a coup d’etat. But he has repeatedly promised reforms that have failed to materialize since the uprising erupted in March.

Syrian opposition leaders and the West have scorned a new offer by President Assad to hold multi-party elections, as his troops mounted more attacks on rebel-held areas.

Assad promised a referendum in two weeks’ time on a new constitution leading to elections within 90 days, but made clear he still planned to crush the uprising against him by force.

The military unleashed a new offensive in Hama, a city with a bloody history of resistance to Assad’s late father Hafez al-Assad, firing at residential neighborhoods with anti-aircraft guns mounted on armored vehicles, opposition activists said, according to Reuters.

As regime forces pummeled the central city of Homs for a 13th consecutive day, four people were killed in the southern town of Deraa when security forces clashed with rebels, monitors said. In Damascus, troops swept into the Barzeh district, searching houses and making arrests, witnesses said. As many as 52 people have been killed in Wednesday’s shelling, activists said.

France said it was negotiating a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria with Russia and wanted to create humanitarian corridors to ease the plight of civilians caught up in the violence.

“The idea of humanitarian corridors that I previously proposed to allow NGOs to reach the zones where there are scandalous massacres should be discussed at the Security Council,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on French radio.

He said a U.N. General Assembly vote on Thursday on a non-binding resolution on Syria would be “symbolic”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would listen to Juppe, but added: “If the plan is to use the Security Council and United Nations to adopt some language to help legitimize regime change, then I’m afraid international law does not allow this and we cannot support such an approach.”

Lavrov said later on Wednesday: “If leading members of the international community demand regime change as a condition for everything else, then we are convinced ... this is the way to a full civil war with unforeseeable consequences.”

Ghalioun re-elected as head of SNC

Meanwhile, opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) members re-elected Burhan Ghalioun as its head at a meeting in the Qatari capital Doha on Wednesday.

The Council is hoping to gain international standing through a “Friends of Syria” meeting on Feb. 24 in Tunisia, which like Libya has seen the overthrow of an authoritarian leader in the last 12 months. Council Secretary General Wael Merza said 74 countries and organizations would be at the meeting.

Western powers are keen to see Assad go but are wary of intervening in a country at the heart of a volatile region.

Syrian state media said on Wednesday a draft constitution to be put to a vote on Feb. 26 would establish a multi-party system in Syria, under Baath Party rule since 1963. Parliamentary elections would follow within 90 days of its approval.

It would allow the president to be elected for two terms of seven years. Assad’s late father Hafez al-Assad was president for 29 years and was succeeded by his son when he died in 2000.

But new parties could not be based on a religion or regional interests, which appeared to exclude the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or autonomy-seeking Kurdish parties.

Melhem al-Droubi, a member of the SNC and the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters that Assad must resign now.

“The truth is that Bashar al-Assad has increased the killing and slaughter in Syria. He has lost his legitimacy and we aren't interested in his rotten constitutions, old or new,” he said.

“The draft constitution is no more than a political tool or a policy paper written by the barbaric regime,” Local Coordination Committees, a main opposition activist group, said in an emailed statement.

“We see no alternative but to topple the regime along with its symbols, representatives and foundational ideology.

The Syrian National Council, the most representative opposition group, is also likely to reject the constitution, given one of its guiding principles is “to overthrow the regime using all legal means.”

The United States dismissed the move as “laughable,” saying “it makes a mockery of the Syrian revolution.”

“Promises of reforms have been usually followed by increase in brutality and have never been delivered upon by this regime since the beginning of peaceful demonstrations in Syria,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

“The Assad regime's days are numbered.”

Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said the United States was “deeply concerned” about arms transfers from Iran to Syria.

He said Iran was supplying weapons that could be used against protesters, as was Russia. He added the United States was concerned about the fate of “tens of thousands” of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles Syria is believed to possess.

The Syrian leader dismisses the revolt as the work of terrorists backed by a conspiracy of enemy nations.

Thousands of civilians have been killed since the uprising began in March, inspired by other Arab revolts. The government says it has lost more than 2,000 soldiers and police dead.

Syrian forces battered rebel-held areas on Wednesday, although official media restrictions made it impossible to verify the accounts provided by activists.