x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syrian rebels attack Damascus

Syrian army defectors attack an intelligence complex as Syria's suspension from the Arab League takes effect.

Foreign ministers of the Arab League meet in Rabat. The meeting, which was also attended by the turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, endorsed the decision taken at the weekend to suspend Syria from the group for refusing to end its repression of anti-government protesters.
Foreign ministers of the Arab League meet in Rabat. The meeting, which was also attended by the turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, endorsed the decision taken at the weekend to suspend Syria from the group for refusing to end its repression of anti-government protesters.

AMMAN // Syrian army defectors attacked an intelligence complex on the edge of Damascus yesterday in a high-profile assault that showed how close the popular uprising is to sliding into armed conflict.

The attack came as Syria's suspension from the Arab League took effect, intensifying diplomatic pressure on the president, Bashar Al Assad, to halt the brutal eight-month repression of protests.

Hours after the suspension began, Al Assad regime supporters threw stones and debris at the UAE embassy in the Syrian capital and smeared its walls with graffiti. The embassy is in one of the most secure districts of the capital, near Mr Al Assad's home and offices.

Pro-regime demonstrators have in the past week attacked the diplomatic offices of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, France, the United States and other countries critical of the Syrian government. France, which is working with the Arab League on a draft resolution at the United Nations, yesterday recalled its ambassador to Damascus.

Last night the UAE said Syria was responsible for the security of embassies and condemned the attack on its mission.

"It was clear there was negligence on the part of the Syrian government in providing the necessary measures to ensure the UAE diplomatic mission in Damascus and the protection of its members," said Juma Al Junaibi, undersecretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The latest violence took place as Arab foreign ministers met in Rabat for an Arab-Turkish forum, where a Syrian flag was placed by an empty chair.

Turkey, now a fierce critic of its former ally, said Syria had failed to honour an Arab peace plan to halt the unrest.

The Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu compared Syria to Libya, where rebels captured, humiliated and killed Muammar Qaddafi last month.

"The regime should meet the demands of its people," he said. "The collective massacres in Syria and … the bloodshed cannot continue like this."

Saudi Arabia said the Arab League was acting in Syria's interest, not interfering in its affairs.

"What's important is not about suspending or not suspending, it's stopping the bloodshed, starting the dialogue and withdrawing troops from Syrian cities," the Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal told Al Arabiya TV.

Western countries have tightened sanctions on Syria and on Monday King Abdullah of Jordan became the first Arab head of state to urge Mr Al Assad to quit after ensuring a smooth handover.

In the early months of the uprising, attempts by security forces to crush mainly peaceful protests accounted for most of the violence.

But since August there has been a growing number of reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting back.

Activists said Free Syrian Army fighters fired machineguns and rockets at a large Air Force Intelligence complex on the northern edge of the capital at about 2.30am. A gunfight ensued and helicopters circled over the complex on the main Damascus-Aleppo road.

There were no immediate reports of casualties. Syrian state media did not mention the attack.

A western diplomat in Damascus described the assault as "hugely symbolic and tactically new", and said that if the reported details were true it would be "much much more coordinated than anything we have seen before".

"To actually attack a base like this is something else, and so close to Damascus as well," said the diplomat. He said fighting in recent weeks involving army deserters in the town of Rastan and the city of Homs resembled a localised civil war."It's not a nationwide civil war, but in very specific locations it is looking like that," he said.

The Free Syrian Army was set up by deserters and is led by Colonel Riad Al Asaad, who is based in southern Turkey.

It announced this week that it had formed a "temporary military council" of nine defecting officers, led by Col Al Asaad.

The statement said the Syrian Free Army aimed to "bring down the regime and protect citizens from the repression … and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls", and it would form a military court to try "members of the regime who are proven to have been involved in killing operations".

Syrian television showed thousands of Mr Al Assad's supporters rallying in Damascus and Latakia to mark the day his father Hafez Al Assad seized power in 1970. It said the crowds were also voicing their rejection of the Arab League's decision.

The Arab League has stopped short of calling for Mr Al Assad's departure or proposing any Libya-style military intervention, but its ostracism of Syria is a blow to a country whose ruling Baath party puts Arab nationalism at the centre of its credo.

Syrian authorities blame the unrest on "armed terrorist gangs" and foreign-backed militants who they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.

Hundreds of people have been killed this month, one of the bloodiest periods of the revolt.

Syria says it remains committed to the Arab peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of troops from urban areas, the release of prisoners and a dialogue with the opposition.

State media said more than 1,000 prisoners, including the prominent dissident Kamal Labwani, were freed on Tuesday. But human rights campaigners say tens of thousands have been detained since anti-Assad protests began.

In Tehran, the Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi criticised the Arab League for "acting in a way that will hurt the security of the region". He told the official news agency IRNA that Syria, an ally of Iran since 1980, had repeatedly pledged to meet legitimate popular demands and enact reforms.

"Unfortunately, some countries believe that they are outside the crisis … but they are mistaken because if a crisis happens they will be entangled by its consequences."

* Reuters with additional reporting by the Associated Press