DAMASCUS (AFP) — The UN Security Council Monday backed a push for Syrian peace talks as the death toll in government air strikes on a rebel-held town outside Damascus neared 100, sparking global outrage.
The unanimously approved Security Council statement, the first of its kind in two years, was described as “historic” by Alexis Lamek, France’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations.
It came just hours after UN officials expressed horror over Sunday’s deadly raids on Douma, among the bloodiest regime attacks in Syria’s four-year war.
Calling for a political transition to end a conflict that has killed some 240,000 people, the council text was adopted by Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the other 14 member states despite reservations from Venezuela.
The 16-point plan backs a peace initiative, set to begin in September, aiming to set up four working groups to address safety and protection, counterterrorism, political and legal issues and reconstruction.
The council demanded that all sides work for a an end to the war by “launching a Syrian-led political process leading to a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”
It made no specific mention of Assad’s future, but Western governments have made clear that a transition would involve his exit from power at some point in time.
Venezuela, which has friendly relations with Syria, disassociated itself from parts of the statement.
The statement was adopted a day after regime air strikes on a marketplace and other parts of Douma, in the rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta, killed at least 96 and injured 240, according to Britain-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The raids came almost exactly two years after devastating chemical weapons attacks on the same region that much of the international community blamed on the Syrian government.
The United Nations’ Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura described the Douma attacks as “unacceptable in any circumstances”.
The United States also condemned the “brutal” strikes which State Department spokesman John Kirby said shows “the regime’s disregard for human life.”
Syria’s main opposition body in exile, the National Coalition, denounced the strikes and the international community’s “lukewarm response” towards the war’s civilian casualties.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said government aircraft carried out another four strikes on Monday morning, without providing a casualty toll.
An AFP photographer said residents were trying to bury victims of Sunday’s attack, despite the renewed strikes.
He said the number of dead in repeated raids on Douma had forced gravediggers to create a mass grave at least four layers deep to accommodate the dead.
The photographer described Sunday’s attack as the worst he had covered in the town. He saw dozens of bodies lined up on the bloodied floors of a makeshift clinic, as medics struggled to treat waves of wounded.
Eastern Ghouta, regularly targeted by government air strikes, has been under a suffocating siege for nearly two years.
Amnesty International has accused the government of committing war crimes there, saying its heavy bombardment of the area was compounding the misery created by the blockade.
It also accused rebels in the area of committing war crimes by firing rockets indiscriminately at Damascus.
UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien, on his first trip to Syria since taking the post in May, also condemned the attack on Monday, telling a news conference in Damascus, he was “horrified by the total disrespect for civilian life in this conflict”.
The European Union also condemned “escalating” violence in Syria.
The opposition National Coalition accused the government of “deliberately” targeting civilians in Douma.
“Assad’s jet fighters fired missiles on marketplaces at (a) busy time when they are densely crowded with the intention of inflicting as many civilian casualties as possible,” a statement read.
Elsewhere, rebel fire on the provincial capital of Assad’s coastal heartland Latakia killed six people and wounded 19 on Monday, state TV said. According to the Observatory there were only three deaths.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow did not accept Assad’s departure as a prerequisite for peace, at a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.
“While some of our partners believe that it is necessary to agree in advance that at the end of the transitional period the president will leave his post, this position is unacceptable for Russia,” Lavrov said, without naming Assad.