Syria to hold 'free elections' by year's end, FM says

US ratchets up rhetoric, but experts say words must be matched by action; Syrian officer tells 'Asharq Alawsat' he was ordered to commit genocide.

Syria's Walid Moallem 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria's Walid Moallem 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria will hold free, public parliamentary elections by the end of this year, the country’s foreign minister said on Saturday.
Walid Moallem said the elections would be one step in the reforms unveiled by embattled President Bashar Assad in a June speech aimed at dampening a nationwide anti-government uprising, now approaching its fifth month.
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Also Saturday, a pan-Arab newspaper based in London reported that a lieutenant in the Syrian Army said he had been ordered to command his soldiers to indiscriminately fire at civilians – including women and children – in the flashpoint southern city of Deraa.
“I, along with other officers, was ordered by our commanders to commit genocide in Deraa and was told not to spare women and children,” Ahmed Khalaf told Asharq al- Awsat newspaper.
Khalaf said he had secretly told his soldiers not to fire on anyone, but was discovered and put under house arrest before fleeing the country to an undisclosed location.
Hundreds of Sunni officers have been jailed nationwide for refusing to fire on civilians, and 4,500 soldiers have defected in the Damascus area alone, he said.
The report comes after an escalated crackdown on anti-regime protesters in the central city of Hama killed an estimated 200 people last week.
On Friday, day Syrian security forces killed at least 18 protesters in attacks aimed at the tens of thousands of protesters who poured into the streets to demonstrate on the first Friday of Ramadan.
Western diplomatic pressure on Assad continues to mount. US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed on Friday to consider further steps to pressure Damascus, the White House said, and Obama held separate phone calls on the crisis with each of the European leaders. Each of the leaders condemned the Syrian government’s “indiscriminate violence against the Syrian people,” the administration said.
They also agreed to “consider additional steps to pressure the Assad regime and support the Syrian people,” though the statement did not elaborate on any measures under consideration.
On Thursday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Assad’s government was responsible for more than 2,000 deaths since protests began in March.
Clinton repeated the United States believes Assad has lost legitimacy in Syria, and said the US and its allies are working on strategies to apply more pressure beyond new sanctions announced on Thursday.
Washington extended sanctions – the fourth round yet – to include a prominent Syrian businessman and member of parliament whom it said was a front for the interests of Assad and his powerful brother Maher.
Earlier last week, US envoy to Syria Robert Ford told a Senate confirmation hearing that Assad was consistently using “constant brutality” and “atrocious torture” against unarmed civilians. But experts said it remained unclear whether that stronger rhetoric actually reflects a changed US policy toward Damascus.
“I think Ford was very much in line with administration policy – or at least administration rhetoric,” said Elliott Abrams, a Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, on Thursday in response to a question from The Jerusalem Post during a media conference call. “And the rhetoric changed because the situation on the ground keeps getting worse and the administration keeps getting hit in the major newspapers, for example The New York Times and Washington Post... I think the question is whether in addition to the rhetoric changing, the policy will change.”
Robert Danin, also a Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, added, “The administration wanted to give the Assad regime an out, but it didn’t comply. So I think the position has changed, and the administration has come to a place where it says ‘This regime has no future and there’s nothing that can be done with it.’ But I think it tried to give the Syrian regime an out, largely because our own tools are very limited...
The only thing the administration hasn’t done is actually call for Assad to go, but I don’t think that option is so important at this point. What’s important now is what we do rather than which word formulation we use.”
Danin also referred to the Palestinian Authority’s expected bid for recognition of unilaterally declared statehood at the UN next month, and the potential for Syriansupported protests on Israel’s borders.
Palestinians living in Syria marched on Israel’s borders in May and June to mark Arab losses in the 1948 and 1967 wars.
“It seems the choice to deploy Palestinian refugees to the border actually proved counterproductive and backfired.
They did it twice, both on Nakba Day and Naksa Day, and there was a backlash within Syria,” he said from Washington.
“People were angry, saying, ‘Why did you send us to our deaths, unarmed and without protection?’ So we’ve seen the Syrian government back off from that tactic.
“But with this regime one can’t rely on it to act in its own best interests or wisely.
I wouldn’t expect something similar in September, but this regime could miscalculate and do something really stupid.”
Reuters contributed to this report.
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