|A huge poster of President Bashar Assad hangs over government supporters during a pro-regime rally in Damascus on 26 January 2012 . |
Syria slammed on Monday an Arab League plan for President Bashar al-Assad to transfer power to his deputy and form a national unity government in two months as "flagrant interference."
"Syria rejects the decisions taken which are outside an Arab working plan, and considers them an attack on its national sovereignty and a flagrant interference in internal affairs," state TV quoted an official as saying.
The initiative was put forward by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani at an Arab League meeting on Sunday, who read out a statement saying Assad should "delegate powers to the vice president to liaise with a government of national unity," to be formed in two months.
The statement followed a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to determine the fate of their Syrian observer mission.
The Syrian official said the regional body should instead "assume its responsibilities for stopping the financing and arming of terrorists," the television channel reported.
The Arab mission has come under fire since its deployment in December 26, with both the opposition and the Syrian government criticizing the League's ineffectiveness.
Human Rights Watch said at least 500 people have been killed since the observers first arrived in Syria.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said ahead of the Cairo talks that Riyadh had pulled its observers from the mission because the Syrian government had "not respected any of the clauses" of an Arab peace plan.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been steering Arab efforts to pressure Syria, but have drawn skepticism from certain opposition groups who fear the two Gulf states will turn the Syrian crisis into a fight against regional rival Iran.
Neither Riyadh nor Doha endorse the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring protests engulfing the region, and sent troops into Bahrain to crush a similar uprising there last March.
The League agreed, however, to extend the Syria mission and boost the number of observers, according to the final statement.
|A supporter of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad attends a rally in Damascus city January 25, 2012. Russia said on Wednesday it remained opposed to sanctions against Syria and signalled no change in its stance over the government's crackdown on protesters seeking an end to President Bashar al-Assad's rule. REUTERS|
The League's secretary general Nabil al-Arabi, who attended Sunday evening's news conference in Cairo, explained that a request for UN support aimed to "give more weight" to the Arab initiative.
The foreign ministers urged "the Syrian government and all the opposition factions to engage in a serious dialogue under the auspices of the Arab League, within a period of not more than two weeks, to be able to achieve the formation of a unity government bringing together those in power and the opposition."
The call for dialogue follows Russian and Iraqi attempts to get the government and opposition factions onto the negotiating table, a move repeatedly rejected by the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella opposition group that includes the Muslim Brotherhood as well as some secular activists.
The new government's mission would be to implement the Arab League plan to end the crisis, and to prepare free and fair legislative and presidential elections under both Arab and international supervision.
It would also prepare the election of a constituent assembly within three months and a new constitution which would be put to a referendum.
After reading out the statement, the Qatari premier said the new plan envisaged the "peaceful departure of the Syrian regime," adding that the plan "resembles the one on Yemen," which resulted in President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreeing to step down.
"If this initiative is not put in place (by Damascus), we will go to the Security Council, where the decisions will be taken," Sheikh Hamad warned.
SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun welcomed the League's statement of its intention to seek UN support.
But he insisted "any transition in Syria should be preceded with the announcement of Assad's departure."
Another opposition group said the plan was "unattainable" due to a lack of a mechanism to implement its measures and would only allow the regime more time to pursue a deadly crackdown.
"The Syrian people have lost confidence in the Arab League's ability to stop the regime’s ongoing bloodshed," said the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which organizes anti-regime protests.
"The LCC finds the Arab League's ... proposal unattainable and lacking proper implementation mechanism," it said.
Ahead of a meeting with his European Union counterparts, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the EU would pledge its support for the Arab League initiative and call for Security Council backing.
"The violence in Syria must stop and this issue should be examined by the Security Council as the supreme guardian of international peace," he said.
The SNC, along with the Muslim Brotherhood and its ally, the Free Syrian Army – armed rebels waging an insurrection against the regime – has pushed for the Arab League to transfer its management of the Syrian crisis to the UN.
But referring the Syrian file to the UN Security Council holds no guarantees for the opposition, with veto-wielding powers Russia and China adamant to stop a Libya-style foreign intervention in Syria.
Diplomatic pressure has been steadily growing on Assad's regime, as more than 5,400 people have been killed since anti-government protests broke out last March, according to UN figures.
Russia-Syria arms deal
In another demonstration of its staunch support for Assad, Russia has reportedly signed a new arms deal to supply Syria 36 Yak-130 advanced training fighter planes in a deal worth $550 million, the Kommersant business daily reported on Monday.
The deal was signed in December with Russia's Rosoboronexport state defense corporation, Kommersant cited a source close to the agency as saying, adding that production of the jets would begin once the advance payment was made.
The two-seater entered serial production in 2009, with the defense ministry placing an order for 55 of the combat trainers from the Irkut defense corporation, according to Russian press.
The jets destined for Syria will be built separately from the ones commissioned by the Russian air force, Kommersant said.
"As soon as Syria transfers the advance to Russia, the factory will immediately assume the assembly of the second set for Syria," the unnamed source told the paper.
A Rosoboronexport spokesman declined to comment.
Boosting Syria's air capability comes amid Russian and Chinese concerns that the West and Gulf Arab states are edging toward military intervention.
Showdown looms at UN
The UN Security Council is expected to vote over the next few days on the Western-Arab draft resolution aimed at making President Assad cede power, paving the way for a coalition government with the opposition.
It comes as the Arab League's monitoring mission to Syria suffered a setback after six countries pulled out, calling on the UN to act.
A diplomatic confrontation is brewing between the UN Security Council with a Western-Arab draft resolution expected in New York on Monday while Russia insists on its own plans for the troubled country.
UN diplomats say France, Britain and Germany have been working with Arab nations on a new Security Council resolution on Syria, the main goal of which, they say, is a democratic transition from President Bashar al-Assad's 11-year regime.
The United States has thrown its backing behind the European-Arab draft, hoping to pressure Russia and China not to block UN action against Syria.
"We are very mindful and appreciative of the attention that the Syria issue has gotten from the Arab League in recent weeks," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner told reporters in Cairo.
But their appeal to the UN does not seem like it will change the situation radically, as Russia, along with China, remains firmly opposed to intervention and the imposition of sanctions against Syria.
Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated Russia’s position once again on Wednesday, saying it will veto any Security Council resolution that would allow foreign military intervention.
"We cannot support proposals under which unilateral sanctions are imposed against Syria without any consultations with Russia, China and other BRICS countries," Lavrov said on Wednesday.
Calling the moves by the UN Security Council against Syria "unfair" and "counter-productive," he said that Russia is also ready for dialogue with its partners in the Security Council.
Indeed, Russia presented its own draft of a UN resolution regarding Syria. And as Lavrov said, it remains on the table.
It is expected, however, that the new draft will replace the Russian text, which Western diplomats say is too weak and no longer relevant in light of the Arab League’s call for Assad to hand power to his deputy.
Moscow's resolution apportions blame on both the regime and armed rebels for the 10-month-old violence. That was deemed unacceptable by Western powers, most notably France which is reportedly a key backer of Turkish-based Syrian rebels waging an armed rebellion against the regime.
Saying their goodbyes and heading home
The observers from the Gulf States headed for the airport, their mission incomplete, leaving behind a country in a deepening crisis. It was never going to be easy.
“We don’t want the Arab League to stay,” protesters say.
Right from the word ‘go’ the mission proved problematic as the opposition accused the monitors of being too closely aligned with the government. Now the government has accused them of being part of a “foreign conspiracy.”
And there were logistical complaints too. The observers seemed ill-equipped and too few to undertake such a major task. But if things were bad at the beginning, now they seem even worse.
Following in Saudi Arabia’s footsteps, all the Gulf States withdrew their observers after Damascus rejected their recent proposal that President Assad cede power to a deputy and form a unity government.
“It’s interesting these countries talk about democracy in Syria but don’t have democracy themselves. This is funny. If I talk about Syria – ok, we’ll have a new constitution, we are going to be a more democratic country, multi-partied – but what about Saudi Arabia? The West can’t talk about Syria and leave Saudi Arabia as it is,” says Dr. Bassam Abu Abdullah from Damascus University.
Damascus’s rejection was no surprise. Both sides in the conflict have shown an equal unwillingness to soften their stance – even though it’s meant the daily death toll in the country continually rising.
The withdrawal of the observers at such a crucial moment in the country’s crisis is seen by some as controversial.
With reports of the continually growing death toll in the conflict, the earlier proposal being floated of increasing the numbers of observers on the ground and providing them with UN training could have been a lifesaving one.
But now those plans have been put on hold.
In fact, much of the substance of the report – that named grave abuses on both sides – seems to have been lost in the flurry of diplomatic activity.
Now France and Britain have joined forces at the United Nations calling for an end to President Assad's rule.
Having waved goodbye to their Gulf State colleagues, some observers remain – but it’s small consolation.
“Syria didn’t close the doors on the Arab League and I think Syria will give anyone the chance to help Syrians but the last decision is in the hands of the Syrian people – not the Arab League and Security Council – through national dialogue and through reforms,” says Dr. Bassam Abu Abdullah.
Although Damascus allowed the mission to be extended for another month and the observers officially saying they can continue with their task, behind the scenes things are much less optimistic
And with deep divisions – both regionally and internationally – over what action to take to end the violence, hopes of ending the crisis seem to be slipping further and further out of reach.
Syria Arab Red Crescent secretary general killed, Syria says
The killing of the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent whilst on the road to Damascus was another reminder of the spiraling situation.
Dr. Abd-al-Razzaq Jbeiro, secretary general of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and president of its Idlib branch, was shot and killed this week near Khan Shaykhun on the Halab-Damascus Highway Wednesday. The shooting occurred as he was returning to Idlib in a vehicle clearly marked with the red crescent emblem after attending meetings at Syrian Arab Red Crescent headquarters in Damascus.
International Red Crescent and Red Cross organizations said they were shocked by the killing and are calling on those involved in violence to spare their relief workers.
The president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Dr. AbdulRahman al-Attar, said that he has "officially requested the Syrian authorities to launch an investigation into the death of Dr. Jbeiro."