Clinton rounds on Russia and China

A world meeting on Syria urged the UN on Friday to use the threat of sanctions to force change in Syria as President Bashar al-Assad was rocked by the defection of one of his most senior generals.

Clinton rounds on Russia and China
Syria Freedom (File) - Syrian actress and activist Fadwa Suleimane attends an April 2012 protest.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also rounded on Russia and China, telling delegates from over 100 countries gathered in Paris that the two veto-wielding UN Security Council members were blocking progress towards peace.

The “Friends of Syria” meeting insisted that Assad would have to quit and sought a resolution under the UN charter’s Chapter 7, which provides for possible sanctions and military action.

But it stressed that the immediate action under Article 41 provided only for non-military intervention.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle backed the call for non-military action for the time being, saying force should only be discussed “when the implementation of the sanctions has not really made the progress they should have”.

French President Francois Hollande also pushed for the Security Council to get tough with Damascus, while the Syrian opposition called for humanitarian corridors and a no-fly zone.

A peace plan drawn up by former UN chief Kofi Annan, which insists on a cessation of violence by all sides, has made little headway and activists say an estimated 16,500 people have now died in the 16-month uprising.

A meeting last weekend of world powers in Geneva agreed to a transition plan that the Syria opposition, the West and Russia have interpreted differently, but Clinton insisted the plan amounted to a call for Assad to go.

“It is imperative to go back to the Security Council and demand implementation of Kofi Annan’s plan including the Geneva communique that Russia and China have already agreed to,” Clinton said.

“We should go back and ask for a resolution in the Security Council that imposes real and immediate consequences for non-compliance, including sanctions,” ranging from economic measures to military force, she added.

The West insists Assad should not be part of any new unity government and the Syrian opposition rejected the Geneva talks as making concessions to Damascus under pressure from Russia.

Taking a tough tone, Clinton said she thought Russia and China did “not believe they are paying any price at all for standing up on behalf of the regime”.

“The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear, that Russia and China will pay a price. They are holding up progress, blockading it. That is no longer tolerable,” Clinton said.

Russia reacted immediately with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov “categorically” rejecting “the formulation that Russia supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the situation that has developed in Syria”.

Hollande said the uprising is now a threat to international security, echoing US calls for a tough UN resolution.

“To those who maintain also that Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as dislikeable as it is, can avoid chaos, I tell them that they will have both the most dislikeable regime and chaos. And this chaos will threaten their interests,” Hollande said.

Although Moscow did not attend the meeting, a diplomatic source insisted that “Russian political and security circles are changing their position”.

“They agree that the situation is deteriorating… even if they continue to defend Moscow’s policies,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The Paris meeting follows a gathering in Tunis and another in Istanbul, both of which called in vain for tougher action against Assad’s regime.

China did not attend either of those two meetings where the United States, France, Britain, Germany as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar led a group of more than 60 members, including most EU states and many Arab League nations.

Assad’s regime was dealt another blow when it emerged Friday that General Munaf Tlass, the son of a former defence minister who was a close friend of Assad’s late father and predecessor, Hafez, had defected.

Tlass, a member of the inner circle of power in Syria, and a childhood friend of Assad, is the highest-ranking military officer to have abandoned the Syrian regime.

A source in Damascus told AFP that Tlass’s relations with the authorities became irreconcilable after the regime’s fierce assault on the Homs district of Baba Amr in February.

Tlass reportedly refused to lead the unit tasked with reclaiming Baba Amr, and Assad subsequently told him to stay at home.

Sources close to Tlass say his family is now in Dubai while others said he would soon head to Paris. The defection of a senior unnamed military figure was confirmed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

A rights watchdog reported at least 29 people killed across Syria on Friday as protesters took to the streets in several provinces after being urged to call for a “People’s liberation war.”

In Geneva, the UN Rights Council issued a new resolution condemning the violence in Syria and the “widespread, systematic and gross violations” of human rights, including the “indiscriminate targeting” of civilians by the Syrian authorities.

The head of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said at the Paris meeting that humanitarian corridors and a no-fly zone should be implemented.

“All steps have to be taken to establish humanitarian corridors and a no-fly zone,” Abdel Basset Sayda said, claiming that Assad’s regime “is about to fall”.

Morocco will host the next Friends of Syria meeting but no date has been set.

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French group to open two hotels in Damascus

France's Louvre Hotels Group has signed an agreement to open two hotels under its own name in Damascus, the first with a western hotel operator since Syria's brutal civil war began in 2011.

French group to open two hotels in Damascus
Louvre owns the Golden Tulip five-star brand. Photo: Louvre Hotels Group
The confirmation of the two hotels opening, after recent media reports, came a day after the UN announced an internal investigation into the bombing of hospitals in Syria, and as at least six civilians were killed by the Syrian regime and Russian fire in northwestern Idlib province in the past days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The region of around three million people, many of them displaced by fighting in other areas, is one of the last holdouts of opposition fighting against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance led by Al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate controls most of Idlib as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
The hotels “will open soon under the brand name of Louvres Hotels Group,” the company, which is owned by China's Jin
Jiang, said in a statement.
Louvre Hotels Group said the deal was signed between Syria's Nazha Investment Group and “a partner with whom Louvre Hotels cooperates in the Middle East”.
The exact number of people killed in Syria's war is unknown but hundreds of thousands have died.
Several dozen medical facilities with links to the UN have been damaged or destroyed by bombs this year. Russian has denied deliberately targeting civilian installations.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Friday said an internal inquiry would look into the bombing of hospitals in Syria which had previously flagged their coordinates to avoid air strikes.
“The deal is strictly in line with international law and all international directives regarding Syria,” the French company statement said.
According to the website, The Syria Report, it is the first agreement with a western hotel operator since 2011, when the devastating conflict began. Louvre Hotels Group was taken over by China's Jin Jiang in 2015 and it operates more than 1,500 hotels in 54 countries.