x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Arab League agrees to keep monitors in Syria

In a blow to the troubled mission's credibility the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, tells his Arab colleagues in Cairo his country was withdrawing from the mission.

CAIRO and DAMASCUS // The Arab League has agreed to extend its observer mission in Syria by a month, despite persistent criticisms it had failed to end the killing of anti-regime protesters, according to unidentified officials quoted by the Associated Press.

But in a blow to the troubled mission's credibility the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, told his Arab colleagues in Cairo his country was withdrawing from the mission.

"My country will withdraw its monitors because the Syrian government did not execute any of the elements of the Arab resolution plan," he said, according to a statement obtained by Reuters.

About 5,400 people have died in the 10-month uprising, including more than 450 since monitors arrived in Syria a month ago to watch over the implementation of a League-brokered peace deal, the UN and human rights groups say.

The decision to grant the observers more time and raise their numbers by about 300 came after Arab foreign ministers met to hear a progress report from the head of the mission, Gen Mohammed Al Dabi, who also spoke on cooperation from the Syrian government.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition group to the regime of Bashar Al Assad, has criticised the mission for its inability to accurately assess the situation or Mr Al Assad's willingness to meet the conditions of the Arab peace plan he agreed to in November.

The SNC has instead called on the Arab League to bring the issue before the UN Security Council and said it would send its own delegates to the UN to push for an intervention by the council.

But even the Security Council is divided over what to do. Western powers are pushing for more sanctions, while Russia prefers to have the Arab League continue to negotiate with the Assad regime.

The decision appeared to be partly the result of unease within the Arab League about foreign military intervention.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have pushed for sending troops into the country, but other members such as Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia preferred to give the mission more time.

Syrian authorities have been keen to show they are cooperating with the monitors. Sana, the official news agency, yesterday said 5,255 detainees had been freed under a amnesty issued by Mr Al Assad for non-violent "crimes", including peaceful protests, committed since the start of the uprising in March.

Tens of thousands more remain in detention, rights groups say.

Pro-regime figures believe the monitors' presence has benefited Mr Al Assad and that extending their remit for another month will further bolster the embattled president's position.

"Having the monitors here has made it very clear to the world that President Assad still has real support here and that there are armed groups, not just peaceful protests," said one pro-regime political figure on condition of anonymity.

"Letting the monitors in has been a clever strategy. It has pleased the Russians and will block any consensus from forming at the United Nations Security Council," he added.

Moscow, a key ally and arms supplier to Mr Al Assad, has given its backing to the observers' mission while continuing to prevent any resolution critical solely of the Syrian regime from making headway at the Security Council.

Syrian officials believe as long as there is no international military involvement in the crisis, the regime will survive the uprising.

Even while the SNC has denied the mission has improved the situation in Syria, some opposition figures and groups believe they are benefiting from the monitors.

Some prisoners have been freed, they note, and while military operations and killings have not stopped they have been scaled back.

Protests have been emboldened, with neighbourhoods coming out to speak to monitors. Areas in which demonstrations had been all but crushed after Ramadan security offensives last year, such as Qaboun in Damascus, are once more staging anti-regime rallies.

The presence of observers has restrained the security forces from embarking on an immediate all-out assault to win it back, Syrian analysts say. Parts of Homs are already off-limits to the security forces and residents of Idleb province say armed opposition factions control areas during the night, with government forces withdrawing to fortified buildings after the sun sets.

Reports from the Damascus suburb of Douma over the weekend suggest it slipped briefly into the hands of protesters under armed rebel protection.

"The regime may think the monitors are helping it buy time but actually they are helping the protesters regroup and become stronger, and it will eventually help with isolating Syria on the international stage," said a leading opposition figure in Damascus, who supported the Arab League's decision.

It was clear that as the observer mission dragged on, there were major impacts on Syrians across the country. Food prices were rising alongside lay-offs, especially in the oil industry, which has been hard hit by the sanctions.

Maher Alwan, who said he was laid off from his petroleum industry job last year, said even in the relatively stable Damascus there were long queues for diesel and cooking gas, although in the capital they had become more widely available.

A canister of cooking gas now costs between 350 and 750 Syrian pounds (Dh22 and Dh47) on the black market, compared with the official price of 260 pounds.

"The problem is that it looks like there is no clear end to this black hole," Mr Alwan said, referring to the clashes between protesters and the government. "Things are getting worse with no clear end to this tragedy."



* With Reuters, AFP and AP