Violence rages in Syria as Arab mission expires

Arab bloc to deliberate over monitoring team's future - Syria's Muslim Brotherhood pushed for Assad's isolation as Kurds seek united front

January 19, 2012 20:15
Syrian protestors at a funeral

Syrian protestors at a funeral 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

Deadly violence raged in Syria on Thursday as a month-long mandate for Arab peace monitors in the country reached its last day.

The monitoring mandate expired on Thursday night, with Arab foreign ministers due to weigh their next move at meetings in Cairo on Sunday. The ministers are at odds over how to respond to the turmoil in which thousands of people have been killed.

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'Syrian tanks pull back from rebel town'
Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader: Isolate Assad

An Arab League source said this week Syria might let the monitors stay on, but without any broadening of their mandate.

“They are in a big mess,” a source close to the Cairobased League said. “They are running out of options.”

Fourteen people were killed on Thursday according to news reports, adding to a death toll of more than 600 since the monitors arrived in Syria, where an insurgency is hardening what began as a mostly peaceful struggle against President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian rule.

In one encircled resort town, however, calm prevailed.

Residents of Zabadani said troops and tanks that had besieged the town had pulled back after a deal to end days of fighting, according to an opposition leader.

Dozens of armored vehicles that had encircled Zabadani, a hill resort near the Lebanese border, withdrew to garrisons 8 kilometers away, he said.

Meanwhile, the leader of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood said world powers should pile diplomatic pressure on Assad and set up a no-fly zone and “safe zones” to help the opposition.

“The international community should take the right position... They should fully isolate this regime, pull out their ambassadors and expel the regime’s ambassadors,” Muhammad Shaqfa told Reuters.

Assad says Syria is facing a foreign conspiracy that is using Islamist terrorists to destroy a bastion of Arab nationalism.

“The country is capable of overcoming the current conditions and building a strong Syria,” he told a delegation calling itself the Arab People’s Initiative for Fighting Foreign Intervention in Syria, the state news agency SANA reported.

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 454 civilians had been killed since the Arab observers deployed on December 26 to verify whether an Arab peace plan was working.

It said 146 members of the security forces, including 27 who deserted to the opposition, had also been killed.

The British-based Observatory reported at least 12 more civilian deaths across Syria on Thursday.

Asked if the Arab monitors had made a difference, Rami Abdul-Rahman, the name used by the Observatory’s director, said: “Yes, in the first week, the number of deaths fell sharply. After that, no, the numbers rose.”

Syrian Kurdish groups opposed to Assad said they would try to unite this month to explain their autonomy demands to Arab groups trying to topple the Syrian president, activists said.

While security forces have clashed daily with protesters and insurgents demanding Assad’s downfall in mainly Sunni Arab towns, Syrian Kurdish areas have remained relatively calm, despite many Kurds’ long-standing opposition to the government.

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Syrian-Kurdish exile leaders say they do not trust the Arab opposition to heed their demands for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish northeast of the country.

Kurdish groups representing Syria’s largest ethnic minority are also divided among themselves, with some factions backed by Iraqi Kurds, and another by Turkish Kurd rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, independent analysts said.

“There will be a national conference of all the Kurdish parties to form one front,” said a leading member of the Democratic Union Kurdish Party of Syria, one of the oldest Kurdish opposition groups. “The aim of the conference is to press the demands of the Kurds in Syria and to open a dialogue with the Arab opposition.”

The United Nations said on December 13 that security forces killed more than 5,000 people in Syria since March. Assad’s foes say the Arab monitoring mission has only given Assad diplomatic cover to pursue a violent crackdown.

Some Arab countries, led by Qatar, which heads the League’s committee on Syria, say the mission has failed.

Qatar has even proposed sending in Arab troops, an idea opposed by Damascus and not endorsed by any other country in the 22- member League.

On Wednesday, Sudan played down criticism of the monitoring mission, saying the performance of the team led by a Sudanese general was improving and it should get more support.

Sudan’s Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti said the monitoring mission had been doing well, despite starting with a limited number of observers.

“Day by day, they are achieving more and more,” he told Reuters, dismissing critics’ assertions that the observers have only provided Assad with diplomatic cover and more time to crush his opponents.

“You know they began with a limited number of monitors, and gradually they began to expand throughout the areas where there are some problems, and they are doing fine.”

The appointment of Sudanese Gen. Muhammad al-Dabi to lead the monitoring team has alarmed human rights activists, who say the government committed atrocities in Sudan’s conflict- torn Darfur region on the general’s watch.

The unrest, combined with Western sanctions, has driven the value of the Syrian pound down by 50 percent on the black market, exchange dealers said. In recent days it traded unofficially at 70 pounds to the US dollar. The official rate has fallen 23% to 57.8 pounds since March.

EU governments are expected on Monday to expand the list of people and Syrian companies and institutions targeted by EU sanctions, diplomats said in Brussels.

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