Friday, August 19, 2011

UN humanitarian mission to visit Syria

In a spate of international activity over Syria, the US, Canada, France, Germany, Britain and the EU have all called for the President Assad to step down. Simultaneously, Syria has agreed to allow a team from the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) access to Syria to verify claims that all army operations against protesters have ended and to report on the human rights situation in the country. This comes at the same time as the UN released a report on the human rights situation in Syria recommending to the UN Security Council (UNSC) that members of the Syrian regime be referred to the International Criminal Court.

On Thursday, the coordinated call by a number of western governments for Assad to stand down came with increased sanctions and a commitment to draft a UNSC sanctions resolution on Syria. President Obama said ‘the future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way.’ With a US official noting ‘we lost patience with him… Assad has a perfect record of empty promises.’ Russia meanwhile has rejected the calls for Assad to stand down, instead suggesting that countries should be helping the regime implement its programme of reforms. Russia has threatened to veto any UNSC resolution that opens the door to international intervention in Syria.

The UN humanitarian mission is due to arrive in Syria on Saturday and will spend four days touring areas where there has been reported violence. This important development will hopefully contribute to a clearer picture of what is happening on the ground in Syria. International media are prohibited from entering Syria and reporting on the situation has been plagued by an inability to confirm rumours and reports. The UN humanitarian chief said Damascus had pledged that the mission "will have full access to where we want to go". The mission comes after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke to President Assad by telephone on Wednesday. During the call President Assad claimed that all army operations against protesters had ended.

All these events have encouraged protesters on the ground. One veteran dissident in Damascus said ‘I am jubilant. This came at the right time for the street’. In contrast, Syria's ambassador to the UN says the US is waging a "diplomatic and humanitarian war" against his country. As international pressure mounts, it is still difficult to see how and when this stand off will end.

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