x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Arab League chief claims deal on reform in Syria

Nabil Al Arabi said yesterday he had reached a deal on political reform with the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, as regional powers stepped up pressure on Damascus to end six months of bloodshed.

DAMASCUS // The Arab League chief Nabil Al Arabi said yesterday he had reached a deal on political reform with the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, as regional powers stepped up pressure on Damascus to end six months of bloodshed.

While the two men met in the presidential place in Damascus for their first face-to-face talks since the crisis began in March, opposition activists said security forces had killed seven people in Homs and Idleb provinces.

Further underlining the scale of the problems, authorities in Damascus said a military bus had been ambushed by "an armed terrorist group" in Homs yesterday, killing one soldier and wounding others. Seven security personnel were also buried, all killed recently in Homs and suburban Damascus, according to Syrian officials.

"We have reached agreement on steps to carry out the reforms, the elements will be submitted to the council of the Arab League," Mr Al Arabi said when he returned to Cairo yesterday. The council is expected to meet tomorrow

Sana, Syria's state-run news agency, said Mr Al Assad and Mr Al Arabi had "agreed upon a number of practical steps for speeding up the reform process" but gave no further details.

It also said the Arab League chief had reaffirmed the organisation's rejection of "foreign interference" in Syria, and Mr Al Assad had "stressed the importance of not being misled" over the real situation inside the country.

Syrian authorities insist they are fighting a foreign-backed Islamist militant insurgency, not trying to crush a widespread and overwhelmingly peaceful pro-democracy uprising.

The Arab League has not made public details of the 13-point plan its members have drawn up for Syria, a member state, but leaked documents suggest the group has called for an immediate halt to deadly security operations against protesters and a commitment to hold a contested presidential election in 2014, when Mr Al Assad's term of office expires.

Syria has not held an open, multi-candidate presidential election since before Hafez Al Assad, the president's father and predecessor, seized power in 1970.

Regime officials insist they have laid out a comprehensive reform agenda, including possible parliamentary elections early next year, but its programme makes no mention of Mr Al Assad's potential replacement in a democratic ballot.

Some opposition groups inside Syria have called for a presidential election.

"The regime says Assad has strong support from the people, so let him stand in a free and fair election in 2014 and he can prove it," said Hussein Amach, a former Syrian government official turned regime opponent, based in Damascus. "Let the ballot box decide who is popular, let the people have their say."

The chances of Arab League mediation achieving any quick success seem slim, with members of the ruling Baath Party yesterday rejecting its proposals as "hostile".

"What is being called the 'Arab League initiative' is not related to real Arab interests and it is not to the benefit of Syria," said Umran Zaubie, a well-connected Baathist lawyer and political commentator in Damascus.

"If the Gulf states are so keen on democracy let us all move together on that path, let us have leadership elections in Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at the same time as we have them in Syria," he said. "Syria is not perfect but it is decades ahead of any of these countries in terms of having a modern, civil, democratic state."

The Arab League has been slow to move on the Syrian crisis, taking months before making any public comment. When it finally met to discuss the issue in August, calls for an end to violence and real reforms met with a sharp rejection from Syria, which said it refused to recognise the meeting's outcome.

Mr Al Arabi subsequently announced he would immediately travel to Damascus to present the league's proposal but failed to secure an invitation from Syrian officials. When he was finally given permission to travel last Wednesday, the visit was postponed at the last minute by Syria for undisclosed reasons.

The delay coincided with a renewed military assault in the central city of Homs, forces backed by tanks killing more than 20 people in a day, according to activists.

As the Arab League continues its efforts to broker a solution to the Syrian crisis, Russia, a key ally of Damascus, has deepened its diplomatic involvement, seeking to mediate negotiations between opposition activists and the Syrian regime.

Mikhail Margelov, the Russian presidential envoy to the Middle East, is to meet Bouthaina Shabaan, a close adviser to Mr Al Assad, in Moscow today. On Friday he met leading opposition figures, saying he was trying to understand "the possibilities for dialogue".

Anti-regime protesters in Syria are demanding the overthrow of Mr Al Assad, rejecting talks until all military units have been pulled out of cities and 10,000 political prisoners released from detention.

More than 2,200 civilians have been killed by security units since March, according to human rights groups and the United Nations. Syrian authorities say about 600 security personnel have died at the hands of insurgents.