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Syrian opposition fears failure of Arab mission
By REUTERS
12/31/2011
Activists say Arab mission "can't help us"; exiled opposition council says UN must step in; Friday death toll at 27.
 
BEIRUT - The Syrian opposition is pessimistic about the chances that Arab League monitors now visiting the country can halt President Bashar al-Assad's 9-month crackdown on anti-government protest, activists said on Saturday.

There is little faith in the ability of the small observer team from fellow Arab states to bring about a withdrawal of armed forces from Syria's most turbulent cities and open the way to a peaceful dialogue leading to change, they said.

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Some activists fear the country may slip into civil war if the Arab mission fails. An opposition leader in exile predicted the United Nations would have to step in.

"We don't know what to do. But we know Assad and his regime won't give us what we want," said opposition activist Ziad in Douma, a suburb of Damascus that has become a city in revolt. "So why should we wait for them to help us?"

"Assad wants us to raise our weapons and kill each other and he is pushing us towards that every day. We wanted the monitors to help us find a solution, but it won't happen."

The Arab League mission is destined to fail, said the Paris-based head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun.

"If the regime fails to meet the commitments it made, there is no other solution except going to the (UN) Security Council and I think we are walking toward the Security Council," he told Al Jazeera television.

"As you saw, the regime is still using snipers and is still using Shabeeha (thugs) and is still preventing people from protesting in public places," said Ghalioun, who is pressing for greater international intervention despite the fact that the West is opposed by Russia and China in the Council on this key issue.

Despite the presence of monitors, which appeared to act as a deterrent on the army in some places, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist network which documents the violence with names and circumstances, said 27 civilians were killed by security forces on Friday.

It said five members of the security forces were shot dead in a clash in the flashpoint city of Homs, where members of the Free Syrian Army made up of army defectors have established no-go zones to protect opposition districts.

Some Syrians fear that unless Assad agrees to peaceful change, continuing violence will ignite a sectarian war between the majority Sunni Muslims who support the revolt and minorities including Assad's Alawite Muslim sect who want no change of regime.

"Lies and fabrications"

Assad, 46, has signed up to an Arab League plan for a verifiable withdrawal of his troops and heavy weaponry from towns and cities, where they have been trying to crush protests that have raged since March.

Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets in major protest cities on Friday to display their determination and hoping the presence of monitors would deter the army from using live ammunition in front of a watching world.

"The army didn't attack people once the monitors arrived," said Ziad. "The army has hidden its weapons and they were stopping people by throwing stones. We haven't seen them do that for six or seven months. They even ran away from us."

The state news agency SANA reported at length on "massive demonstrations" throughout the country on Friday in support of Assad, and against "the plot which Syria is exposed to."

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Demonstrators denounced "the pressure and biased campaigns targeting Syria's security and stability" and the "lies and fabrications of the misleading media channels" which caused the shedding of Syrian blood, it said.

Mass rallies in the Damascus region "participated in lighting the 'Homeland Tree' which is decorated with the photos of the army and policemen martyrs," SANA reported.

The Arab League mission which began on Monday has energized the protesters while provoking skepticism in Western countries.

"We are determined to show them (the monitors) we exist. Whether or not there's bloodshed is not important," said an activist named Abu Khaled in the northern city of Idlib, in a typical comment on Friday.

Amateur video showed teams of monitors in white baseball caps and yellow safety vests being mobbed and harangued in dense crowds of excited protesters. Some rushed at the observers, trying to shout over the thousands chanting "The people want to liberate the country!".

Monitor team delayed

The United Nations estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed across Syria since March - most shot during peaceful anti-government protests but many others were killed in rebel attacks and local defense actions.

In parts of Hama, a city with a history of revolt and savage repression, videos showed protesters fleeing the main streets on Friday as heavy gunfire erupted in the background. In one such segment, a few men rushed back, ducking in the crackle of gunfire, to carry away a man who had fallen limp in the street.

In Zaid's Damascus suburb, Douma, protesters bore away a man whose leg had been shredded by what they said were nail bombs.

The Arab League mission has met with strong skepticism from the outset over its makeup, its lack of numbers - due to rise from 60 to 150 - and its reliance on government transport.

The United Nations said it was critical that the team's "independence and impartiality be fully preserved".

Spokesman Martin Nesirky urged the Arab League to "take all steps possible to ensure that its observer mission will be able to fulfill its mandate in accordance with international human rights law standards". He said the United Nations was willing to give the League observers training on human rights monitoring.

Ednan Al-Khodeiry, who heads the Arab League mission's operations center in Cairo, said a group of 22 Iraqi monitors who were due to arrive on Friday were delayed and would arrive mid-week, along with members from Gulf states.

"There will be a weekly report in which we will evaluate the mission's work over the week. The mission hasn't completed a working week in Syria yet," he said.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil ElAraby said at the outset of the mission that it should take only a week to establish if Assad was keeping his promises. It would not take a month, he said.

The commander of the Free Syrian Army told Reuters on Friday he had ordered his fighters to stop offensive operations while the FSA tried to arrange a meeting with the monitors. But in a newspaper interview published on Saturday he said if the Arab mission was "not professional, then we will resume our defense operations".
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