Crackdown in Syria persists after Arab League initiative

Assad's violent crackdown on opposition continues in Homs despite agreement to pull military out of cities.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
November 4, 2011 01:46
4 minute read.
Syrian soldiers man tank (illustrative)

Syrian Tank 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Syrian security forces killed 10 people in the city of Homs on Thursday, a day after the government agreed to pull the military out of cities as part of an Arab League initiative to end unrest.

After seven months of street protests demanding the removal of President Bashar Assad, and a nascent armed insurgency against his rule, Syria agreed on Wednesday to an Arab League plan to withdraw the army from cities, release political prisoners and hold talks with the opposition.

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Assad’s critics have dismissed his past offers of dialogue as insincere, saying the killing must stop before any meaningful talks can take place. The main opposition Syrian National Council has not commented on the government’s acceptance of the Arab League plan.

In Syria, residents and activists said there were no signs so far of any troop pullout, and security operations continued.

In Homs, tanks fired heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft guns in Bab Amro, a hotbed of protests and scene of operations by the military against insurgents hiding there.

Activists named two civilians killed in the bombardment. A garbage-truck driver was among three others killed elsewhere in the city of one million, where army snipers were shooting from rooftops and soldiers fired from checkpoints.



Activists and residents reported army reinforcements at roadblocks in towns across the southern Hauran Plain, where troops fired in the air to disperse overnight protests.

In the Damascus suburb of Harasta, at least 120 protesters were arrested overnight after celebrating the Arab League deal, a resident said. The plan calls for Syria to allow journalists, as well as Arab League monitors, into the country.

The United Nations says the crackdown on demonstrations has killed more than 3,000 people.

Western sanctions and growing criticism from Turkey and Arab neighbors have raised pressure on Syria to end the bloodshed.

“We are happy to have reached this agreement and we will be even happier when it is implemented immediately,” said Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar, which leads an Arab League committee behind the plan agreed upon in Cairo.

China, which along with Russia has resisted imposing UN sanctions on Syria, welcomed the Arab League plan.

“We believe this marks an important step towards easing the situation in Syria and the early launching of an inclusive political process with broad participation from all parties in Syria,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

After the deal was announced in Cairo, the United States reiterated its call for the Syrian president to quit.

The Arab League has not suspended Syria’s membership or backed international intervention, as it did against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

There was no lull in violence as the Arab League ministers met on Wednesday. In one incident alone, Syrian activists said security forces had shot dead at least 11 Sunni villagers at a roadblock near Homs. A YouTube video purportedly showed several bodies, gagged and with their hands tied behind them.

Their killing follows reports by an activist in Homs that nine members of the president’s minority Alawite sect had been dragged from a bus and killed by gunmen near Homs on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Syria’s former vice president said Syrians will have to take up arms in selfdefense unless the world intervenes to protect civilians.

Abdul-Halim Khaddam, 79, who fled to Paris in 2005 after nearly 30 years of serving Assad and his father, Hafez, tried four years ago to establish a government- in-exile but fell out with other opposition groups.

Widely mistrusted by Syrian dissidents who recall his time in office, Khaddam plans to unveil a new group next weekend to support opposition efforts to oust Assad and create a democracy.

“If the international community does not react to stop these crimes and protect civilians, the Syrians will be forced to take up arms to defend themselves,” Khaddam said in his first interview in Paris, where he had previously stayed silent.

Protesters in Syria are increasingly calling for foreign intervention, but there is scant appetite in the West for military action in the country, and NATO has ruled out any Libyastyle campaign there.

The Syrian protest movement has been largely peaceful, but a nascent armed insurgency has emerged in some areas and a colonel who deserted has set up a Turkish-based rebel army.

Khaddam, who lives in his luxurious house in a wealthy part of Paris under 24-hour police surveillance, predicted that an Arab League initiative aimed at halting the violence would fail.

“It calls for dialogue between Assad and the opposition, but not on the basis of the end of the regime. Conciliation has been rejected by the Syrian street and all the opposition,” he said.

Khaddam, who resigned and quit the Ba’ath Party in 2005, described Assad as too “weak” a character to be decisive.

“It’s true I was with Assad. I opposed internal politics, but I did not confront the regime because the sanction for those against it was either life imprisonment or death,” he said.

“After I left I was the first person to call for the fall of the regime. I knew this regime could not be reformed.”

Khaddam acknowledged he had no contact with the main opposition groups such as the Syrian National Council, whose de facto leader Burhan Ghalioun is also based in Paris.

However, he said his “National Committee to Support the Syrian Revolution” would encourage unity among Assad’s disparate opponents, raise funds and lobby international powers.

“The overseas opposition will not topple the regime, it will be the revolutionaries in Syria.

[Our job] is to support and not take its place,” he said.

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