x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Arab League deadline fails to stop bloodshed in Syria

The Arab League, which suspended Syria last week, wants to send a team of observers to ensure compliance with an Arab-brokered peace plan.

At least nine people were killed in Syria yesterday as security forces continued a crackdown despite a looming Arab League deadline for Damascus to end the bloodshed.

The Arab League, a political coalition of 22 Arab states, had threatened Syria with political and economic sanctions if President Bashar Al Assad failed to comply with measures such as putting an end to the violence and pulling out of violent areas by early today.

But yesterday Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said: "Six new civilians were killed by the security forces, bringing the overall death toll to nine dead."

Three civilians were killed when military forces raided the town of Kafr Takhareem, Mr Rahman said. Two more civilians were killed by gunfire when soldiers clashed with defectors in the town of Qusayr in Homs province, another was shot dead by a sniper in the city of Homs, he said.

The UK-based observatory had earlier reported the death by gunfire of a civilian in Hama and news of the deaths of two army deserters who had clashed with regular troops in Qusayr.

The United Nations says at least 3,500 people have been killed in the eight-month uprising against Mr Al Assad. Syrian authorities have blamed the violence on foreign-backed armed groups which it says have killed more than 1,100 soldiers and police.

The Arab League - which suspended Syria last week over its inability to stem the violence - wants to send a team of observers to ensure compliance with an Arab-brokered peace plan. Damascus has agreed with the ceasefire, but has so-far been unwilling - or unable - to put it into practice.

Nabil Elaraby, the secretary-general of the Arab League, said in a statement on Friday that the league was studying "amendments" to the draft protocol sent in a letter from Damascus. He gave no details on the changes Syria seeks.

The league had originally proposed to send 500 observers but that figure was cut to 40, said Ibrahim Al Zaafarani, an Egyptian member of the Arab Medical Union, who is expected to be a member of the team heading for Syria. He said he was not clear on why or on whose behest the number was reduced.

"Our presence there will be protection for civilians," said Mr El Zaafarani, who was speaking from Cairo. He said the mission will include doctors, activists and military experts.

In Washington, Mark Toner, the spokesman for the US Department of State, said the US has seen no indication that Syria will honour the Arab League proposal.

"They've lost all credibility and that's why we believe Assad needs to step down and allow for a democratic transition to take place," he told reporters.

Even if the monitors eventually make it into Syria, questions remain over how effective Damascus will allow the monitors to be. Speaking on condition of anonymity on Friday, a Syrian official said that the government had agreed to the observer mission in principle but it was "still studying the details".

"We have warned in the past and we will warn again that these are methods of the regime to waste time," said Omar Idilbi, a Beirut-based member of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of regime opponents.

In addition to initiatives from Arab states, major foreign powers have heaped pressure on the Al Assad regime in recent days.

Both the United States and Syria's former staunch ally, Turkey, have raised the spectre of civil war. In London on Monday, the British foreign Secretary William Hague was to meet Syrian rebel leaders.

The Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called for restraint over the Syrian crisis after meeting his French counterpart, Francois Fillon, who accused Al Assad of being deaf to pressure.

"We are calling for restraint and caution. This is our position," Mr Putin told a Moscow news conference. Russia had opposed Western efforts to internationalise the crisis, fearing it could clear the way for a Libya-style military intervention under a UN mandate.

In October, Russia and China vetoed a Western-drafted UN Security Council resolution that would have threatened Mr Al Assad's regime with "targeted measures" over its crackdown.

French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, in Turkey ahead of a tour of Arab states, said the "time has come to increase sanctions" on Syria.

jcalderwood@thenational.ae

With reporting by news agencies