The death toll from Syria’s crackdown on a nine-month-old uprising has exceeded 5,000 people, the top UN rights official says, as Syrians close their businesses and keep children home from school as part of a general strike to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to end the bloodshed.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Navi Pillay said on Monday at least 300 children are among those killed in the Assad regime’s attempts to stamp out the revolt, and that thousands of people remain in detention.
Speaking at the UN, Pillay said she told Security Council members of the increase in deaths during an afternoon briefing, and said she recommended that the council refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the permanent war crimes tribunal, for investigation of possible crimes against humanity.
US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, said Pillay’s briefing “underscores the urgency of the present moment,” and urged the UN Security Council to take concrete steps to bring the violence to an end.
Assad has shown no little sign of easing his crackdown, despite mounting international pressure, including a recent spate of economic sanctions from the EU, the Arab League and Turkey, which are punishing the Syrian economy, a dangerous development for the government in Damascus.
Now, the open-ended strike by Syrian businesses also takes direct aim at Syria’s already ailing economy. It is designed to erode Assad’s main base of support — the new and vibrant merchant classes who have benefited in recent years as the president opened up the economy.
If the economy continues to collapse, Assad could find himself with few allies inside the country, where calls are growing by the day for him to step down. He is already struggling under international isolation and suffocating sanctions.
It is difficult to gauge the strength of the strike because the regime has banned most foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from moving freely. However, there were signs it was being widely observed in particular in centers of anti-government protest: the southern province of Daraa, the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, the northwestern region of Idlib and in the restive city of Homs.
The opposition wants the strike to remain in force until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases thousands of detainees.
“Only bakeries, pharmacies and some vegetable shops are open,” said one resident of Homs who asked that his name not be published for fear of reprisals.
He said those stores stayed open because they sell essential goods.
In addition to the strike, he said, security was tight in Homs on Monday with agents deployed at every intersection. The crackle of gunfire erupted sporadically.
“There is a terrifying security deployment in Homs,” he said.
Activists said a new round of clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors began Sunday with a major battle in the south and spread to new areas on Monday, raising fears the conflict is spiraling toward civil war.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says new clashes between soldiers and defectors were reported Monday in Idlib in the north, and that fighting continued for a second day in southern Daraa Province. Four members of the security forces were killed as a result of the clashes there, the observatory said.