x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

More violence, more pressure, but Syria remains obstinate

The prospect of a new opposition coalition comes amid continued violence, fresh warnings from the United Nations and growing pressure from the Arab League and Turkey.

Damascus // Syria's two main opposition blocs expect to launch a united political platform "soon", activists say, in what would be a further step towards unifying anti-regime forces.

The prospect of a new coalition between the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Committees (NCC) comes amid continued violence, fresh warnings from the United Nations of "serious massive violations of human rights" and growing pressure from the Arab League and Turkey.

Arab finance ministers, in coordination with Ankara, may announce economic sanctions today after the latest deadline for Syrian compliance with a peace plan appeared to have expired without response.

Under an Arab League initiative to steer Syria out of an eight-month crisis, the league had called on Damascus to give written authorisation by yesterday afternoon for a team of independent monitors to enter and freely examine the situation on the ground.

The deadline expired without formal reply from Syria but the Reuters news agency said Arab League officials would accept a response until the end of the day. By late last night, Syria still had not agreed. However, the state-run news service Sana had earlier called the Arab League plan a "flagrant interference" in domestic policy. It also attacked the proposed economic sanctions, saying they would "harm the interests of the Syrian people".

Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the failure to agree heightened concerns about the humanitarian situation.

"Syria was expected to say yes to the observers ... unless there is a reality it hides about the situation in Syrian cities," he said.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates has urged its nationals to leave Syrian territory and to postpone plans to travel to Syria because of the violence there, WAM reported.

"Emiratis who are already in Syria are advised to avoid large gatherings of people, exercise caution and leave Syrian territory," Director of Nationals' Affairs at the Ministry Ambassador Eissa Abdullah Al-Kalbani said.

The original Arab League plan, agreed with Damascus on November 2, required Syria to halt military operations against protest centres, stop all violence, free thousands of political prisoners and enter into talks with the opposition to map out a transition to democracy.

However, the Arab League suspended Syria on November 12, saying it had failed to implement any of the terms of the deal, despite Syrian claims it had made progress.

Economic sanctions under consideration today include freezing Syrian assets, halting trade and financial exchanges and stopping international flights from Arab states to Damascus. They would further tighten an economic blockade imposed by the United States, European Union, Canada and Switzerland.

The Arab League has taken an increasingly prominent role in the Syrian crisis after months of silence. Critics accused the league of giving Damascus a free hand to crush anti-regime protests violently. With the death toll rising above 3,500 by the most recent UN count, and with protests doggedly continuing despite widespread suppression, Arab capitals began to take a harder line.

 

They have also been urging Syria's notoriously divided opposition to unite on a single political platform, something Hasan Abdul Azeem, chairman of the NCC said was likely to happen "in days not weeks".

"We have been holding meetings with the SNC in Cairo and we are working on a joint position," he said in an interview in Damascus on Thursday, suggesting the coalition might call itself the "Syrian National Congress".

One of the key sticking points between the groups has been the issue of international military intervention. The NCC, which is based in Damascus, has unequivocally set itself against such moves while the overseas-based SNC had been ambivalent.

Now, however, they appear close to agreement that while there should be no foreign military intervention, some form of humanitarian intervention under UN and Arab League auspices would be acceptable.

"Unity between the SNC and the NCC will make the opposition stronger and more coherent, and that will only add to the growing pressure on the authorities," said an independent analyst in Damascus.

Amid growing alarm about the possibility Syria is sliding towards civil war, activists said at least three civilians were shot by security forces, in Homs, Deraa and Deir Ezzor yesterday.

Syrian state media also confirmed that six military pilots and four other officers were killed as they travelled between Homs and Palmyra on Thursday afternoon.

"This confirms the involvement of foreign elements and their support of these terrorist operations in an effort to weaken the fighting capabilities of our forces," it said.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group of army defectors fighting the regime, had previously claimed an ambush on a military bus transporting military pilots.

More than 800 security personnel have been killed since the uprising started in March, according to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, who says the country is facing an Islamic insurgency, backed by foreign powers.

Also yesterday, the UN Committee Against Torture said there were "systematic" attacks by the Syrian security forces against civilian protesters and that children were being arrested and tortured, without any officials being held to account.

"Needless to say, the serious massive violations of human rights take place in a context of total and absolute impunity," said committee chairman Claudio Grossman in Geneva. "There haven't been investigations on this matter."

psands@thenational.ae