U.S. & world leaders at U.N. condemn Syria violence, call for Assad to step down

U.S. and world leaders meeting at the United Nations last week strongly condemned the worsening violence in Syria and stepped up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at the United Nations in New York, N.Y., Sept. 25, 2012. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.

“In Syria, the future must not belong to a dictator who massacres his people,” said President Barack Obama at the U.N. General Assembly. “We again declare that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop and a new dawn can begin.”

At an Ad Hoc Friends of the Syrian People Ministerial meeting on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States will contribute another $30 million to support the opposition and humanitarian efforts in Syria. The additional funds would bring total U.S. humanitarian aid to Syria to $132 million this year.

Another key development that emerged from the ministerial meeting was Iraq’s agreement to ban any flights from Iran that “carry military equipment and resupplying of Syrian troops” from traveling through Iraqi airspace. Iraq announced that it will conduct “random searches of Iranian aircrafts en route to Syria.”

“Let’s be very frank here: The regime’s most important lifeline is Iran,” said Clinton, who noted that Iranian General Mohammed Ali Jafari recently acknowledged that members of Iran Qud forces are providing “counsel and advice” in Syria. “We urge all of Syria’s neighbors to take steps to prevent their territory or airspace from being used to fuel Assad’s war.”

So far, the international community’s efforts – led by the United States – have focused on providing “non-lethal” assistance to the Syrian opposition and using economic sanctions to isolate and build pressure on Assad to relinquish power rather than employing military actions to force out Assad.

“Military intervention from the outside right now would do more harm than good,” said a senior State Department official during a background briefing last Tuesday.

A military intervention – though not completely written out by the U.S. and its partners – could create a sudden power vacuum that allows well-armed extremists to seize control and fuel sectarian violence in Syria and risk destabilizing the region, particularly neighboring countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey.

It’s worth noting that while many Arab countries have strongly condemned the violence in Syria last week, they have made it clear that they do not support military intervention. Also, Russia and China will most likely veto any military action proposed in the Security Council as they have done so in three prior occasions.

Given those factors, the international community has focused on using diplomacy and non-military aid to (1) stop the violence by Assad’s forces, (2) secure a stable political transition, which translates to the removal of Assad from power, (3) install an interim government, and (4) hold elections that will, hopefully, usher in a stable, democratic government in Syria.

All the aforementioned goals have to be achieved while staving off power grabs by extremists and maintaining security, peace, and stability in a country with a diverse ethnic and religious population. They also complement the “systematic, deliberative” approach to unify the opposition and negotiate a political transition undertaken by U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who replaced Kofi Annan in mid-August.

A senior State Department officials emphasized how critical it is to unify and prepare the opposition to ensure stable transition.

“In the end, the regime will go and – but it is also important that the Syrian opposition then be ready to lead a transition forward, and that’s why the support for that opposition is so important,” said a senior State Department official. “As the Syrian state is losing the battle on the ground, something has got to fill the vacuum. Otherwise, extremists will fill that vacuum, and we don’t want that.”

The United States has donated 1,200 pieces of equipments, mostly communications tools to help opposition forces coordinate with each other on-the ground to boost their chances of defending themselves from Assad’s forces. The official noted that Assad’s forces specifically destroyed communications infrastructures – such as cell services – in cities like Aleppo, Homs, and Deir al-Zour to cut off communications between opposition forces and to restrict information of the atrocities to the outside world.

Other equipments and funding provided will go toward helping opposition foresee repair and maintain critical infrastructure services – such as canals and fuel – in liberated areas.

“We face enormous challenges on the ground in Syria. The violence has escalated. The willingness of the regime to throw every asset it has at the people of Syria has been absolutely confirmed in blood,” a senior State Department official said.

Indeed, violence in Syria has dramatically increased over the past six months despite high-profile defections from Assad’s regime.

Assad’s forces have intensified military operations, using helicopter gunships, fighter jets, and other heavy weapons against civilians.

U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson noted that even women and children “faced systematic slaughter” by Assad’s forces.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice recently estimated that about 20,000 people have been killed and tens of thousands have been wounded since the fighting began a year and a half ago. U.S. officials say the growing violence has forced 350,000 refugees to flee to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, and between 1 million to 1.5 million people have been forced out of their homes but remain in Syria.

Mounting pressure on Assad 

Despite the deteriorating conditions on-the-ground, U.S. officials maintained that actions taken by the international community are taking a toll on Assad’s regime:

  • Sanctions have squeezed the Syrian economy
  • Assad’s regime has been losing territories to opposition forces
  • Assad has been losing supporters, including some recent high-profile defections by key figures in the regime, including former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab to Jordan, former Deputy Oil Minister Abdo Hussameddin, former Governor of Hama, Gen. Manaf Tlas, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Muflih, a key figure in the Syrian intelligence operations, and Assad’s sister, Bushra, has moved her family to Dubai.

How the FY2012 $132 million U.S. aid for Syria was distributed: 

  • $48.5 million through the World Food Program (WFP);
  • $30 million through NGOs (non-governmental organizations);
  • Almost $30 million through United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR);
  • $11 million through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA);
  • $8 million through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC);
  • Almost $4 million through the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF);
  • $1.3 million through the World Health Organization (WHO);
  • $1 million through the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC);
  • $0.5 million through the International Organization for Migration (IOM);
  • $0.5 million through the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; and
  • $0.3 million through the UN Department of Safety and Security for support of humanitarian operations.


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