Rebel leader: Syria should not be allowed to become Rwanda

Amman, Jordan Gen. Salim Idris, the Syrian rebel commander of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council, sent an urgent warning to the United Nations Security Council this week alleging "systematic ethno-sectarian cleansing" by the Assad regime. In a letter obtained by CBS News, Idris accused the regime and Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters of targeting Sunni minorities in western Syria, specifically the town of Tal Kalakh, northwest of Qusayr. He said regime forces are using barbed wire fences, barricades and landmine fields to seal off areas, and that thousands living inside could be massacred.

"Syria should not be allowed to become the Rwanda of the 21st century," Idris wrote.

The increasingly sectarian nature of the violence in Syria is a major factor driving increased outside support for the rebels, in particular from Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia. In Jeddah on Tuesday, Prince Saud al Faisal used the term "genocide" a total of five times during a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Saud called the conflict as an "unprecedented genocide" in the region and a foreign invasion, a reference to the Iranian and Hezbollah fighters who are fighting to prop up the Assad regime. Those fighters are mainly Shiite.

"This must end," he said. "Saudi Arabia isn't a country that interferes in internal affairs of countries but when you invade a country in which genocide is being perpetrated, it is not a normal situation. I challenge with all clarity that we will help the Syrian people defend with whatever means we have."

It is uncommon for Saudi Arabia to lecture the international community on human rights, given the Kingdom's own spotty record. Yet Prince Saud said that what is happening in Syria calls out for the "collective conscience of the Arab, Islamic and international communities." He chastised the international community for failing to provide military assistance to help defend the Syrian people against "abhorrent crimes being committed against it with nary an excuse."

Those comments were a veiled reference to the inability of the U.N. Security Council to take any action during the past two years of the Syrian crisis. Countries like the U.S., United Kingdom and France have tussled with the idea of multilateral military intervention but ultimately have failed to act. They have also been unable to halt the flow of weapons from Iran and Russia to the Assad regime. Saud described this support as consisting of a "massive flow of weapons" to "aid and abet the genocide."

Sitting beside Saud, Kerry remained circumspect though he too has publicly referred to episodes of "ethnic cleansing." Quietly State Department officials have also started to use the phrase, especially when addressing specific incidents like the siege of Qusayr in western Syria, in which thousands of civilians were killed. Humanitarian agencies were denied access by the Syrian military so the numbers are inexact.

The U.N. Human Rights Council reported that war crimes - including "forced displacement" - have been committed along ethnic and religious lines. However, it blames both the Assad regime and anti-government forces for these crimes. Some rebels have ties to well-armed extremist groups like al Qaeda, who are themselves very hostile to minorities.

The tremendous amount of violence in Syria has sent 1.7 million refugees to countries like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The rising tension on these borders caused President Obama to act - not the sectarian violence - according to Fred Hof, former Special Representative on Syria at the U.S. State Department.

"The president himself does not seem to be particularly attached to this responsibility to protect doctrine," Hof said. "He's processing this in terms of American national security interests."

If true, that does not bode well for Idris, who is desperately trying to persuade the international community to act soon. In his letter to the U.N., Idris said that nations have a ''basic intrinsic moral responsibility' to intervene.

"Indeed, a new world map drawn on sectarian and ethnic lines, based on a "Syrian Precedent" will be a disastrous fate for the world we all want to see. Simply, a dictator should not be left to do so much destruction."

The U.N. has yet to respond to his plea.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Principally assigned to the State Department, Margaret Brennan also serves as a CBS News general assignment correspondent based in Washington, D.C.

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