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Syria hits back on diplomats, but allows humanitarian access

June 5, 2012 | 10:00 am

BEIRUT -- Syria retaliated Tuesday for last week’s coordinated expulsion of its diplomats from the United States, Europe, Turkey and elsewhere, labeling as “unwelcome” a series of ambassadors and other foreign envoys from 11 nations, including the United States.

But the government of President Bashar Assad also acceded to longtime demands for increased humanitarian access, agreeing to allow aid staffers from the United Nations and various nongovernmental agencies to enter Syria.

With a 15-month-old rebellion battering Syria, human rights groups had complained about restricted access for humanitarian help, including food, medical assistance and shelter. Some estimates say that more than 1 million Syrians are in need of help.

Opening up humanitarian aid was one of the major objectives of the U.N.-brokered peace plan worked out by Kofi Annan, U.N. and Arab League special envoy to Syria. Assad has been under pressure to show greater compliance with the faltering peace plan.

Under the new arrangement, Syria has agreed 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.

“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, Reuters reported.

Diplomats deemed by Syria personae non gratae include U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who, like most or all of those on the "unwelcome" list, had already been pulled from Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Also targeted were diplomats from Turkey, Canada, and eight European nations — Britain, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Bulgaria and Germany.

The diplomatic moves are mostly symbolic in nature, but the actions do highlight Syria’s isolation, especially from the West and from its neighbor Turkey, which shares a more than 500-mile-long border with Syria.

However, Syria still counts on the major support of Iran, a regional force, and the superpower backing of Russia and China, two nations that have acted in tandem to resist any tough U.N. moves against the Syrian government.


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--Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Hu Jintao before the start of their previously scheduled talks in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Tuesday. Their governments have resisted tougher U.N. action against Syria. Credit: Alexey Druzhinin / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.