x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

15 more die in Syria as Arab League meets to salvage peace deal

At least 60 people have been killed by security forces in Syria since the November 2 Arab League agreement was concluded.

Damascus // The Arab League will hold an emergency meeting in Cairo tomorrow to try to salvage a faltering agreement designed to end the bloodshed in Syria.

The deal has been severely undermined in the 10 days since it was made, with Arab League chief Nabil al Arabi warning the consequences of its failing will be "catastrophic" for the Middle East.

At least 60 people have been killed by security forces since the November 2 agreement was concluded, with Syrian troops using tanks and heavy weapons in a series of attacks on the central city of Homs, according to the United Nations office for human rights.

At least 19 of the dead were killed on Sunday, the UN said, as the Muslim world marked the start of Eid Al Adha, one of the most holy days in the Islamic calendar.

The bloodshed continued yesterday, as about 15 people - including an eight-year-old girl and six soldiers - were killed across the country, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Arab leaders have been privately telling the United States that they have offered the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad asylum in an effort to persuade him to step down, a top US diplomat said yesterday.

"Some Arab leaders already have begun to offer Assad safe haven in an effort to encourage him to leave peaceably and quickly," said the assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman.

"Almost all the Arab leaders say the same thing: Assad's rule is coming to an end. Change in Syria is now inevitable," Mr Feltman told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a hearing on Mr Al Assad's bloody crackdown on dissent.

While some talk of a "palace coup" in Damascus, Mr Feltman said, "I think that's very unlikely".

More protests are likely to take place today, again pitting security forces against demonstrators. Any additional deaths - the regular Friday protests routinely result in casualties - will only add to the strain that has all but shattered the Arab League attempt to mediate between Mr Al Assad and his opponents.

Under the terms of the deal, the Syrian authorities were required to pull tanks out of protest areas, end violence, free thousands of political prisoners and hold talks with the opposition.

Announcing tomorrow's emergency meeting of regional foreign ministers this week, the Arab League said it had been called because of continued high levels of violence and "because the Syrian government did not implement its commitments".

Damascus is certain to deny that, with officials expected to tell the Arab League that Syria remains committed to its pledges and that significant steps have been taken to implement the deal on the ground, including the release of 553 prisoners on Sunday.

In addition, Syria seems likely to blame the United States, and perhaps Washington's regional allies, of conspiring to undermine the peace plan. Walid Moallem, Mr Al Assad's long-serving foreign minister, has already written to the Arab League and the United Nations accusing the US of trying to "obstruct" the deal by supporting anti-regime militants.

Separately, Youssef Ahmed, the Syrian ambassador to the Arab League, has questioned whether the organisation is working to subvert its own plan, suggesting that Mr Al Arabi, the Arab League chief, was acting as a belligerent party against Syria's government and was guilty of "double-standards".

The Syrian authorities insist they are fighting a foreign-backed Islamist insurgency, which they claim was responsible for the continuing civilian deaths and the killing of more than 1,100 security personnel since the uprising began in March. The UN and opposition activists say that more than 3,500 people have been killed since the March uprising began, most of them civilians and peaceful demonstrators.

The state-run news agency Sana also flatly denied reports by the UN and human rights campaigners that security operations caused "appalling" conditions in some residential areas of Homs.

"Life is normal. Shops are open. All basic needs are available and the children are enjoying their Eid holiday," Sana reported yesterday. It quoted local officials as saying bread and drinking water supplies were normal, and that communication networks had only been interrupted because of sabotage by "terrorist groups".

There was no official comment on the continued presence of army units in urban areas.

There was little indication of what steps the Arab League would take in response to its initiative's lack of impact. The original agreement did not detail a plan of action for non-compliance and there appears to be insufficient consensus within the organisation to take firm steps, either with or against the Syrian regime.

One possible outcome could be for the league to suspend Syria, although Arab diplomats have indicated that is unlikely to happen quickly.

Amnesty International yesterday urged the Arab League to refer Damascus to the International Criminal Court over allegations security forces have committed crimes against humanity, and to push for access by independent human-rights monitors to see the situation at first hand.

Long deemed by its critics to be ineffectual and defensive of the regional status quo, the Arab League has shown little appetite or capacity for decisive intervention since the Syrian uprising started eight months ago.

In part that is because Syria sits at the centre of an explosive mix of intractable regional problems, from the Arab-Israeli conflict to sectarian and ethnic tensions to a long-running struggle for power between Iran and the Arab Gulf countries. All could be ignited simultaneously if the situation is clumsily handled.

The Arab League is also internally divided over how to deal with the violenece in Syria. Some members, including Lebanon and Iraq, have supported Mr Al Assad while others, including Qatar, have taken a harder line.

The Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, who heads the Arab League's panel on the crisis, has vowed that "the necessary decisions" will be taken in respect to any failure by Syria to meet its side of the bargain, with suggestions the matter could be referred to the United Nations Security Council, as happened with Libya.

In contrast, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah has downplayed the chances of that happening, saying there was no willingness to "internationalise this matter".

Even if the Arab League can agree some kind of new arrangement regarding Syria - or revive its fading peace plan - the problems involved in halting the crisis remain daunting. Mr Al Assad's regime and its opponents are both firmly entrenched in positions that seem irreconcilable, with nether strong enough to conclusively defeat the other.

Syria's autocratic regime says it cannot stop security operations while facing armed insurgents and officials have given mixed messages over their willingness to talk on equal terms to protesters' representatives.

Opposition groups have made it clear they will not negotiate with the authorities until the security forces are called off, political prisoners are freed and reliable guarantees are given about a rapid transition to democracy and rule of law.


* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse