Deadlock at the UN - but Syrian rebels land blows against regime

Border gains give rebels vital foothold while Russia and China still block resolution to end violence

Russia and China yesterday blocked a crucial UN Security Council resolution on Syria while events on the ground raced ahead of the grinding diplomacy as the rebels appeared to be nearing a turning point in the conflict, announcing key strategic advances.

The United States envoy to the UN, Susan Rice, levelled a scathing statement towards Russia and China after those nations vetoed a draft Security Council resolution that called for sanctions if the Syrian regime does not make an effort to end violence within 10 days. The draft also linked compliance with the terms of the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan to Chapter Seven of the UN charter, opening up the possibility of military intervention.

As the diplomatic efforts struck an impasse, Syrian rebels were said to have taken control of all crossings along the Iraqi border as regime troops focused on clinging to control of Damascus.

"All the border points between Iraq and Syria are under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)," Iraq's Deputy Interior Minister, Adnan al-Assadi, told Agence France-Presse. There were also unconfirmed reports that posts along the border with Turkey had been seized by FSA forces. If true, such gains would present a major breakthrough, as it would allow rebels to open the posts for the flow of weapons.

Meanwhile, in New York, Ms Rice said the Security Council had "failed utterly in its most important task on the agenda this year", adding that the US would now work outside the paralysed council to confront President Bashar al-Assad. Unless a compromise can be reached by this afternoon, the team of 300 UN observers will return when their mandate expires today. Russia has forwarded a draft resolution that extends the mandate of the mission with a focus on a political transition.

While a UK diplomatic source said Britain hopes to see passage later of a four-paragraph resolution that would authorise a final 30-day extension of the mission, it was not clear whether the US would back such a compromise. Ms Rice said that it was not credible to argue that an unarmed observer mission should continue, unless it could report violations of the peace plan which could then be followed up with "swift and meaningful consequences".

On the ground in Syria, events moved rapidly. Street battles raged as reinforcements of rebels moved to the capital, with FSA logistical co-ordinator Louay al-Mokdad saying that an additional 5,000 soldiers had left for Damascus yesterday. Only "special units" of well-trained recruits, such as army defectors, were moved, while civilian fighters were asked to stay to protect home provinces.

After a daring attack on the National Security building on Wednesday, killing at least three of Mr Assad's top security officials, the FSA and activists continued to report gains. An opposition activist in the city told The Independent that the suburb of Midan was under rebel control yesterday, but the army continued to try to rout them.

Panicked Damascus residents, who had until this week been largely sheltered from the tumult of the 16-month uprising, fled over the border to neighbouring Lebanon, with one border guard claiming that 20,000 had fled over the past 24 hours. While they remain outgunned and outnumbered opposition forces have been buoyed by recent defections, with the FSA reporting that 1,200 soldiers joined their ranks on Wednesday alone.

Still, the results of the Syrian army's renewed pledge to crush the "terrorists" were just becoming clear yesterday. Reports emerged that 92 people were killed as troops shelled a funeral in the Damascus suburb of Sayeda Zaineb. Videos purporting to show the aftermath pictured mangled bodies lined up in a local mosque, where activists said they had been taken for identification and final prayers.

'Appalled and inexcusable': World reaction

Mark Lyall Grant, British Ambassador to the UN "The United Kingdom is appalled by the decision of Russia and China to veto this draft resolution aimed at ending the bloodshed in Syria...The effect of their actions is to protect a brutal regime. They have chosen to put their national interests ahead of the lives of millions of Syrians…"

Li Baodong, Chinese Ambassador to the UN "The political process should be led by the Syrians and relevant plans need to be discussed and developed by all parties in Syria… [The West has adopted] a rigid and arrogant approach."

Gerard Araud, French Ambassador to the UN "It is clear that Russia only aims to give more time to the Syrian regime to crush the opposition… Refusing Annan the means of pressure that he asked for is to threaten his mission."

William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary "The decision by Russia and China, in the view of the United Kingdom, to veto this resolution is inexcusable and indefensible... They have turned their back on the people of Syria in their darkest hour… I believe Russia and China will pay a serious price in the Middle East diplomatically and politically."

Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN "Despite paranoid, if not disingenuous claims to the contrary, [the resolution] would in no way authorize nor even pave the way for foreign military intervention."

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