x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Jordan's king says Assad should step down

Other Arab nations have been critical of Syria's handling of the uprising but none has joined calls made by the United States and European nations for Bashar Al Assad to step aside.

Syrian regime supporters hold portraits of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and shout slogans against the Arab League, as they gather outside the Syrian foreign ministry  in Damascus on Monday.
Syrian regime supporters hold portraits of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and shout slogans against the Arab League, as they gather outside the Syrian foreign ministry in Damascus on Monday.

Damascus // King Abdullah of Jordan said yesterday that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad should step down and work to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

Meanwhile, Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem warned the Arab League that it had taken a "dangerous step" in electing to suspend Damascus.

In an interview with the BBC, King Abdullah said, "If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life."

"I believe, if I were in his shoes, I would step down," he said. "I would step down and make sure whoever comes behind me has the ability to change the status quo that we're seeing."

Other Arab nations have been highly critical of Syria's handling of an anti-regime uprising but none has openly joined calls made by the United States and European nations that Mr Al Assad should step aside.

Instead, they have urged him to quickly implement sweeping democratic reforms and to end spiralling violence that, according to the United Nations, has claimed more than 3,500 civilian lives since March.

However, Mr Moallem, Syria's long serving foreign minister, made it clear there would be no change of course, insisting Damascus had stuck to the Arab League deal and would emerge victorious despite growing international and domestic pressure.

"The decision of the Arab League to suspend Syria represents a dangerous step," he told a news conference in Damascus. "Today there is a crisis in Syria which pays the price of its strong [anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian] positions. Syria will not budge and will emerge stronger... and plots against Syria will fail"

He described the crisis, now entering its ninth month, as "reaching the beginning of the end".

On Saturday, the Arab League voted to suspend Syria and impose economic sanctions because of what regional states overwhelmingly agreed was its failure to comply with the November 2 deal, designed to steer the country out of its prolonged crisis.

Syria was required to pull army units out of residential areas, to halt violence by security units, release thousands of political prisoners and begin talks with anti-regime opposition groups.

Responding to the suspension, Mr Moallem said the Syrian authorities had been "truthful in implementing" the Arab League plan, freeing hundreds of prisoners and allowing in dozens of journalists.

He said the Syrian authorities had "always" approached the matter of political reforms and negotiations with "complete openness" and were already practicing "quiet democracy".

The United Nations, human rights groups and opposition activists say more than 60 civilians have been killed by government security services since November 2, most of them shot during a military assault on Homs, one of the focal points of the revolt.

Damascus rejects such claims and says it is facing an armed insurgency by Islamic extremists, backed by foreign powers and incited to violence by the West, with Homs as the stronghold for what it calls "armed terrorist gangs".

That ongoing conflict with insurgents had meant not all the clauses of the Arab League plan could be implemented as quickly as the Syrian regime had hoped, Mr Moallem indicated.

"It is the responsibility of the state to protect civilians," he said. "This is natural. Likewise, it is the responsibility of the state to deal with armed groups operating outside the law."

While condemning the Arab League's stance as "shameful", Mr Moallem repeated a call for a full leadership meeting of the organisation to discuss the Syrian crisis. He also apologised for attacks on the Saudi Arabian, Qatari and Turkish embassies on Saturday night, when supporters of President Al Assad had ransacked the buildings.

The Syrian foreign minister also pointedly heaped praise on Russia, China, Iran and other countries that had given their backing to Damascus, saying this would prevent any foreign military intervention or a repeat of the Libyan scenario, when Arab states and the UN Security Council authorised Nato attacks to protect civilians.

Western powers say they have no interest in another military involvement and the Arab League itself has said that option is not being considered for Syria. But the group's unexpectedly hard stance and a promise by Nabil Al Arabi, the league's chairman, to involve the United Nations in efforts to safeguard Syrian civilians was interpreted in Damascus as a signal that a war is being planned.

Nonetheless, Mr Moallem said there was no need for concern. "The Syrian people should not be worried because Syria is not Libya, the scheme [against Syria] will be divulged day after day," he said.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, bolstered that position yesterday, criticising the Arab League for making an "incorrect" move in voting to suspend Syria and indicating Damascus could count on Moscow's continued backing.

"Those who took this decision have lost a very important opportunity to make the situation more transparent," he said, condemning the United States and Europe for their support of anti-regime protesters.

The EU announced an extension to its economic sanctions yesterday, aimed at adding further pressure against Mr Al Assad's regime. Another 18 Syrians are to be put on a sanctions blacklist, Brussels said, and development loans from the European Investment Bank frozen.

The Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also added its voice to criticism of Syria yesterday, warning Damascus that if it "does not comply with the legitimate demands of the Syrian people and international calls by the OIC, the Arab League and the United Nations, it will risk the internationalisation of its crisis."

 

psands@thenational.ae