Syria expels diplomats but allows more humanitarian aid


BEIRUT — Syria retaliated Tuesday for last week’s expulsion of its diplomats from Washington and other capitals, barring or expelling 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 workers to enter four strife-ridden provinces: Homs, Idlib, Dara and Dair Alzour.

Human rights groups had complained about restricted access for providing food, medical assistance and shelter for victims of Syria’s escalating violence. By some estimates, 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 the flow of aid 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 foreign agitators for the unrest 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 admitted almost 300 U.N. observers and said it has increased the number of visas for foreign journalists and released about 500 prisoners.

Apart from helping civilians, the humanitarian staffers would also serve as a new set of witnesses to what is happening 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. spokeswoman. Officials were hoping the red tape would be minimal and aid workers could begin arriving soon.

Diplomats deemed unwelcome by Syria on Tuesday include U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, who, like many or all of those on the list, had already been pulled from Damascus, the Syrian capital. Other diplomats on the list are those from Turkey, Canada, Britain, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Bulgaria and Germany. Many, if not all, of these nations have called on Assad to step down.

The diplomatic moves are largely symbolic but they highlight the isolation of Damascus, especially from the West and from neighboring Turkey, which shares a more than 500-mile-long border with Syria.

Syria still counts on the unwavering support of Iran, a major regional force, and backing from Russia and China, which have acted in tandem to thwart any U.N. Security Council action that could lead to U.N.-authorized sanctions or military action against Syria.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Beijing, where the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the two nations reaffirmed their support for the Annan plan and their joint opposition to any “external intervention” or forced “regime change” in Syria.

There were new 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 effect the Free Syrian Army’s declaration would have. The Syrian armed opposition is a deeply fragmented collection of dozens of militias without a central command structure.