Main humanitarian need is for Assad militias to leave, activists say, as Valerie Amos inspects shattered district
Syria has allowed aid workers and the UN’s humanitarian chief to visit the shattered Baba Amr district of Homs, in what activists called a “distraction” from the regime’s attacks on civilians.
A Syrian Red Crescent team made a brief, 45-minute visit to Baba Amr on Wednesday, six days after the Syrian government first promised to allow humanitarian relief to be delivered to the area. Baroness Valerie Amos, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, went with the team and inspected the ruined suburb.
The volunteers said that Baba Amr was largely deserted. Most inhabitants appeared to have left. Those who survived the Syrian army’s brutal four-week onslaught here were now living in suburbs of Homs and outlying areas, including the village of Abel, 10km south of the city, where aid is being distributed.
Speaking to the Guardian, Abo Emad, an activist in Homs, described the Red Crescent’s visit as a distraction. He said: “The main humanitarian need in Homs is for the Assad militias to leave, because they are the people who are killing us. That’s more important than the lack of food and water and medical supplies.”
He added: “They [the authorities] have been trying to clean the Insha’at and Baba Amr area so that they can say ‘armed gangs’ did all the damage. It’s a kind of set-up.” Emad said the regime was bussing in supporters from pro-regime neighbourhoods to Baba Amr in a stage-managed ploy to demonstrate support for the government.
Regime forces recaptured Baba Amr last Thursday. Residents say Damascus deliberately delayed allowing in the UN and the Red Crescent so as to cover up evidence of atrocities and carry out so-called “mopping up” operations by pro-government soldiers and militias. The government rebuffed an earlier request by Amos to visit Syria, who will brief the UN security council next week.
The violence on the ground in Syria now appears to have shifted from Homs to other areas. The Syrian military on Wednesday attacked the pro-rebel town of Idlib near the Turkish border, according to witnesses, shelling several northern villages. In the southern province of Dera’a, thousands of people attended the funeral of two men killed earlier this week by Syrian army mortars.
Kofi Annan, the new UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, is likely to visit Damascus on Saturday. It is not clear yet whether President Bashar al-Assad will meet him, and the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough appears slim. Despite hopeful predictions of Assad’s imminent downfall, his regime appears to be more resilient under pressure than some had expected. Western diplomats concede he may – given time – succeed in crushing the uprising, which began a year ago next week.
Assad has cast rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army as al-Qaida extremists. But most observers believe Syria's violent conflict isn't sectarian in character, even though the areas that have led the rebellion are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Assad – from Syria's ruling Alawite minority – has cast himself as the only person capable of guaranteeing the rights of non-Sunni groups. On Tuesday, Assad said that he will continue to confront "foreign-backed terrorism", state media reported.
Britain and the US have repeatedly ruled out arming Syria’s rebels. Instead, they are trying to increase political support to the country’s nascent opposition. In Washington, US defence secretary Leon Panetta rejected fresh demands for US military involvement in Syria to end Assad’s crackdown.
“What doesn’t make sense is to take unilateral action right now,” Panetta told the Senate armed services committee about advising Obama to dispatch US forces. “I’ve got to make very sure we know what the mission is … achieving that mission at what price.”
The panel’s top Republican, Senator John McCain, said the estimated 7,500 dead meant that the US administration should emulate the leadership shown by President Bill Clinton during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, and demonstrated by Obama in Libya last year. “In past situations, America has led. We’re not leading, Mr Secretary,” McCain told Panetta.
“This terrible situation has no simple answers,” Panetta replied.
Russia and China, powerful Syrian allies which have blocked a UN security council resolution, have made clear they were still standing by the regime in Damascus.
Still, in a sign of China’s growing alarm, Chinese commerce minister Chen Deming said Beijing was pulling its workers out of Syria because of the violence.
“I can tell you most Chinese workers have been withdrawn from that country to China,” he told a news conference on Wednesday. “There are only about 100 people left there taking care of projects, assets and property. We will wait until the local situation stabilises. We will go back to Syria and restart those projects.”
from Valerie Amos, Luke Harding, Matthew Weaver