Syrians celebrate arrival of Arab League monitors

"Allowing slaughter of innocent civilians is inexcusable," expat Syrian physician tells the ‘Post.'

December 28, 2011 01:14
Anti-Assad protest in Homs, Syria

Anti-Assad protest in Homs 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Tens of thousands of Syrians rallied in Homs on Tuesday, emboldened by Arab peace monitors’ first tour of the hotbed of protests, after the army withdrew some tanks following battles that killed 34 people in 24 hours.

Bashar Lutfi, a physician who hails from Hama – another protest hub and the scene in 1982 of a bloody siege against anti-government rebels – said despite high hopes, the monitors could be expected to have little substantive effect.

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Lutfi, who now lives in Miami, told The Jerusalem Post that for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, “cooperation with monitors would mean his demise.”

“I do not expect the regime to cooperate with them, and monitors without force to prevent the massacres may not help,” he continued.

“In the long term, [the government’s fate] will depend on what the major players in the region are willing to do to stop the massacres and the mad Assad killing machine.

“This criminal regime only knows two options – either total subjugation of the Syrian people, or massacres... To allow innocent civilians to be slaughtered in this manner is really inexcusable. It is reminiscent of the people who watched Hitler killing the Jews and did nothing about it. Hitler was killing his own people too.”

Lutfi was one of some 50 experts and Syrian expatriates who sent an open letter last week to US President Barack Obama urging Washington to take a stronger stance on confronting the Assad regime.

The bloodshed continued Tuesday despite the monitors’ arrival, with rights groups estimating 15 people had been killed Tuesday nationwide. More than 5,000 people are believed to have been killed in the nine-month uprising.

Observers want to determine if Assad is keeping his promise to implement a peace plan to end his uncompromising military crackdown.

In a video posted to YouTube, some protesters shouted “we want international protection.” Another showed a street encounter in which some Homs residents argued and pleaded with monitors to venture further into the Baba Amr Quarter, where clashes have been especially fierce.

Bursts of gunfire erupted towards the end of a video, after a resident yelled at one monitor to repeat what he had just told his headquarters.

“You were telling the head of the mission that you cannot cross to the second street because of the gunfire. Why don’t you say it to us?” the man shouted, grabbing the monitor by his jacket.

Gunshots crackled nearby as two monitors and two men wearing orange vests stood amid a crowd of residents, one begging the team to “come and see – they are slaughtering us, I swear!” The head of the mission said the first visit was “very good.”

“I am returning to Damascus for meetings and I will return tomorrow to Homs,” Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi said. “The team is staying in Homs. Today was very good and all sides were responsive.”

Activist reports just before the monitors arrived said up to a dozen tanks were seen leaving Baba Amr, but others were being hidden to fashion a false impression of relative normality in the city while observers were present.

“My house is on the eastern entrance of Baba Amr. I saw at least six tanks leave the neighborhood at around 8 in the morning,” one man said. “I do not know if more remain in the area.”

As the monitors arrived, tanks were seen leaving the Baba Amr district. Protesters in Homs appeared to take heart from the observers’ sudden presence, hoping to convince monitors they must not be hoodwinked by the state by being shown places where life appears relatively normal.

Al Jazeera showed an estimated 20,000 people in a square in Khalidiya, one of four Homs districts where there has been significant bloodshed. They were whistling and shouting and waving flags, playing music over loudspeakers and clapping.

Women were advised to leave because of the security risk, but a speaker urged men to “come down, brothers.”

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The protesters shouted “We have no one but God!” and “Down with the regime!” An activist named Tamir said they planned to hold a sit-in in the square.

In Baba Amr on Monday, activist video showed bodies in pieces and buildings smashed as if by heavy weapons, though the images were impossible to verify.

“We do not want to jump to conclusions and say that this delegation is not objective or did not look for the truth,” said Moulhem Droubi, a top-ranking Muslim Brotherhood member on the Syrian National Council, the opposition umbrella group in exile.

“It is not fair yet to judge. Let’s wait and see what it will do,” he said. “I expect it will be able to write a report with many facts because the facts are so clear. If they go to Baba Amr they will see that there is destruction.”

Also Tuesday, the SANA state-news agency reported that “an armed-terrorist group targeted and sabotaged a gas pipeline near Rastan” in the Homs province.

The pipeline has been attacked several times in recent months and returned to operation each time.

Syria stalled the Arab League for months before accepting the monitoring mission, the first significant international intervention on the ground since the start of the popular revolt inspired by Arab pro-democracy uprisings this year.

The Arab delegation started with 50 monitors who arrived on Monday. About 100 more are to follow shortly.

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