Syrian President Bashar al-Assad talking with people inside the country. The Syrian government has accepted a peace plan peddled by former UN General Secretary Kofi Anan., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Syria expels Western diplomats
By PATRICK J. MCDONNELL
Los Angeles Times
BEIRUT -- Syria retaliated Tuesday for last week's expulsions of its diplomats from Washington and other capitals, barring or expelling a series of foreign envoys from 11 nations, including the United States.
But the government of President Bashar Assad also consented to longtime international demands for augmented humanitarian access, agreeing to allow United Nations and other aid staffers to enter four strife-ridden provinces: Homs, Idlib, Daraa and Deir Elzour.
Human rights groups had complained about restricted access for aid, including food, medical assistance and shelter for victims of Syria's escalating violence. Some estimates say that more than 1 million Syrians are in need of help.
"Whether this is a breakthrough or not will be evident in the coming days and weeks and it will be measured not in rhetoric, not in agreements, but in action on the ground," John Ging, operations director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters in Geneva.
Opening up a humanitarian flow to Syria is one of the major objectives of the six-point peace plan worked out by Kofi Annan, the U.N. and Arab League special envoy. Assad has been under intense pressure to show greater compliance with the faltering peace blueprint.
The concession on the humanitarian point may be meant to buy Assad's government more time on more contentious requirements in the six-point plan. Among them are the mandate that Syria pull back troops from populated areas, end the use of heavy weapons and allow people to demonstrate freely. Implementing those points, many observers say, would inevitably embolden the opposition and hasten Assad's fall.
Assad has blamed the unrest on foreign agitators and has been wary about outside scrutiny, even as allegations of human rights abuses multiply against both sides.
There was no mention Tuesday of another peace-plan mandate - the implementation of a daily two-hour "humanitarian pause" in hostilities.
In other moves related to the U.N. peace process, Syria has already allowed in almost 300 U.N. observers and said it has increased visas for foreign journalists and released some 500 prisoners.
Apart from helping civilians, the humanitarian staffers would comprise a new set of witnesses to what is happening on the ground in Syria. Government restrictions on journalists and other independent observers have made it difficult to ascertain the truth about many incidents, including the killings last month of more than 100 people, mostly women and children, in the town of Houla, a massacre that drew global condemnation.
The new humanitarian agreement calls for Syria to grant an unspecified number of visas to aid personnel from nine U.N. agencies and seven nongovernmental organizations, said a U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman. Officials were hoping the red tape would be minimal and aid staff could begin arriving soon.
Diplomats deemed by Syria personae non gratae on Tuesday include U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, who, like many or all of those on the unwelcome list, had already been pulled from Damascus, the Syrian capital. Other diplomats on the list came from Turkey, Canada, and eight European nations - Britain, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Bulgaria and Germany.
The diplomatic moves are largely symbolic in nature, but they highlight the isolation of Damascus, especially from the West and from its neighbor, Turkey, which shares a more than 500-mile-long border with Syria. Many if not all of the nations whose diplomats were deemed unwelcome have called on Assad to step down.
Syria still counts on the unwavering support of Iran, a major regional force, and backing from Russia and China. The two superpowers have acted in tandem to thwart any U.N. Security Council action that could lead to Libya-style, U.N.-authorized sanctions or military action against Syria.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Beijing, where the Chinese Foreign Ministry said both nations reaffirmed their support for the Annan plan and their joint opposition to any "external intervention" or forced "regime change" in Syria.
There were fresh reports of violence in Syria as one opposition umbrella group, the Free Syrian Army, declared Monday that it would no longer abide by terms of a "cease fire" that was part of the Annan plan.
Both sides have regularly violated the cease fire and it was unclear what impact the Free Syrian Army's declaration would have. The Syrian armed opposition is a deeply fragmented collection of dozens of militias without any central command structure.
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