UN condemns Syrian use of foreign fighters in Qusayr

UN move comes as elite Syrian and Hezbollah fighters battle Syrian rebels for control of the strategic town of Qusayr

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 May, 2013, 9:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 May, 2013, 1:57am

The UN’s top rights body on Wednesday voted to condemn the Syrian regime’s use of foreign fighters in the besieged town of Qusayr and ordered an urgent probe into the killings in the town.

Thirty-six of the UN Human Rights Council’s 47 member states voted in favour of the resolution that implicitly refers to the involvement of fighters from Lebanon’s militant group Hezbollah in the fierce battle for the strategic town, where hundreds of civilians have reportedly been killed.

Eight countries abstained, two refrained from voting and only Venezuela cast its vote against the resolution.

The text, which was put forward by the United States, Turkey and Qatar and which is non-binding, “condemns the intervention of foreign combatants fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime in Al Qusayr.”

It goes on to express “deep concern” that the involvement of the fighters could “further exacerbate the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation”.

The resolution also stressed “the need to ensure accountability for those responsible for the massacre in Al-Qusayr.”

Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah sent almost 1,700 fighters to Qusayr more than a week ago to support the regime’s assault on the rebel stronghold.

Control of Qusayr is essential for the rebels as it is their principal transit point for weapons and fighters from Lebanon.

The resolution means the UN commission of inquiry on Syria tasked since 2011 with probing rights abuses across the country will be ordered to investigate the killings in the town.

The investigators, who include legendary former war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, will however probably not be able to visit the site, as it has so far been barred by the regime from entering the country.

Elite Syrian and Hezbollah fighters on Wednesday rushed to Qusayr, bidding to finally overrun rebels in the strategic town in a battle that could turn the tide of an increasingly sectarian war, a watchdog said.

President Bashar al-Assad, who is clinging to power more than two years into an armed uprising against his rule, is to be interviewed on Hezbollah television on Thursday, according to his office.

Despite having opposing positions, Assad’s most powerful ally Russia and the United States, which has called for the Syrian president to resign, have been trying to organise a conference aimed at ending the conflict.

Hopes are building for the peace conference to be held in Geneva next month, but serious obstacles could still scupper the talks – not least divisions within the ranks of the Syrian opposition.

The UN Human Rights Council will on Wednesday debate a draft resolution condemning the Assad regime’s use of “foreign fighters” in Qusayr, in an implicit reference to Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement whose fighters are spearheading the government assault that has now reclaimed 80 per cent of the central town.

Government fighter jets early on Wednesday bombed rebel zones of the town as regime forces readied to launch a major new assault, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog.

The crack troops of the Republican Guards pouring into Qusayr have been trained in urban guerrilla warfare, like militiamen from Hezbollah, said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Britain-based Observatory.

“The preparations indicate that they are gearing for a major offensive” on rebel-held areas in the town’s north and west, he said, adding that “despite the intense bombardment, the rebels are resisting fiercely.”

Sunni militiamen from Lebanon had joined the battle on the side of the rebels, and “the fighting is becoming more and more sectarian in character,” said Abdel Rahman.

Syria’s regime is dominated by the minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while the majority of the population are Sunnis.

Control of Qusayr is essential for the rebels as it is their principal transit point for weapons and fighters from Lebanon.

The town, which is home to 25,000 people, is also strategic for the regime because it is on the road linking Damascus with the coast, its rear base.

“If Qusayr falls into the hands of the regime, it will be a hard blow for the rebels because routes used to bring in their arms from Lebanon will be closed,” said Abdel Rahman.

“If Qusayr was not strategic the rebels would not be fighting to the death and the regime and Hezbollah would not have brought in their heavyweights,” said the head of an organisation that relies on a network of sources on the ground for its reports.

Iran-backed Hezbollah sent almost 1,700 fighters to the Qusayr more than a week ago to support the regime’s assault on the rebel stronghold.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has promised his fighters will help deliver “victory” in the battle, seen as pivotal in Syria’s drawn out civil war in which more than 94,000 people have died.

Syrian rebel chief Salim Idriss warned on Tuesday that if Hezbollah fighters do not stop their aggression in Syria within 24 hours, “we will take all measures to hunt” them, “even in hell”.

The threat came as Russia insisted it will send promised ground-to-air S-300 missiles to Syria’s regime, prompting an Israeli minister to warn that it would act to stop the delivery.

The developments stoked tensions after the European Union decided to lift an embargo on supplying weapons to Syria’s rebels, in a move condemned by Russia.

Moscow said on Wednesday it was surprised the United States was backing an “odious” resolution at the UN Rights Council condemning the Syrian regime’s use of foreign fighters, saying it undermined peace efforts.

More than 94,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the conflict which broke out after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired democracy protests that erupted in March 2011.