x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Arab League in crisis talks over Syrian 'catastrophe'

League says Assad regime 'did not implement commitment' to have troops off the streets by yesterday after regime forces kill at least 13 protesters after prayers on one of Islam's holiest days.

DAMASCUS // The Arab League yesterday called a crisis meeting on Syria's failure to implement its peace plan as regime forces killed at least 13 protesters after prayers on one of Islam's holiest days.

The Eid Al Adha violence was the fourth straight day of bloodshed since Damascus, facing mounting international pressure, agreed to the plan aimed at ending almost eight months of bloodshed. The league has warned breaking the agreement would be catastrophic for Syria and the region.

The league said yesterday foreign ministers from the 22-nation group will meet on Saturday because of "the continuation of violence and because the Syrian government did not implement its commitments in the Arab plan to resolve the Syrian crisis".

Abdulfattah Ammura, Syria's deputy foreign minister, had promised that troops would be off the streets by yesterday. "Syria means what it says and we will implement the Arab League agreement, every aspect of it. If we agree to something, we do it," he said on Saturday. "We are working on it. We will see it very shortly, hopefully before Eid."

The Arab League's secretary-general, Nabil Al Araby, has warned: "Failure of the Arab solution would lead to catastrophic results for the situation in Syria and the region as a whole."

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of the latest deaths were in Homs, the volatile central city at the forefront of the protests against the president Bashar Al Assad's regime. They bring to at least 60 the number of people killed since the Arab League blueprint was signed.

The United Nations says the repression of dissent has killed at least 3,000 civilians. Bloodshed linked to the military crackdown and what appear to be sectarian revenge killings has engulfed Homs in recent weeks, killing scores of people in Syria's third-largest city. "It is a very painful situation here in Homs," one resident said yesterday. "The holiday will come for us only when we are free from this regime."

The Arab League deal requires Syria to halt violence against protesters, take security forces off the streets, free political prisoners, allow league officials and rights groups into the country to monitor the situation and to prepare for talks with the opposition soon.

On Saturday, Mr Al Assad marked Eid by releasing 553 detainees, according to Sana, the state-run news agency. The detainees were involved in unrest but had "no blood on their hands", Sana said.

Mr Al Assad traditionally releases detainees to mark religious or national holidays, but many more are believed to remain in jail as political prisoners.

The French foreign minister Alain Juppe said yesterday it was clear Syria would not implement the peace deal and there was "nothing more to expect" from the regime.

"Different initiatives have been taken to try to bring Bashar Al Assad to dialogue," Mr Juppe said.

"You can see what happened to the last one: Bashar Al Assad accepts the Arab League peace plan and the next day he massacres dozens more people in the streets."

Syria's tactics have also strained relations with neighbours such as Turkey and Lebanon.

The crisis in Syria has burnt since mid-March despite widespread condemnation and international sanctions aimed at chipping away at the ailing economy and isolating Mr Al Assad and his tight circle of relatives and advisers.

The protesters have grown increasingly frustrated with the limits of their peaceful movement and there are signs of a growing armed rebellion in some areas, led largely by deserters from the security forces operating within Syria and from a base inside Turkey.

Some protesters are even calling for the kind of foreign military action that helped to topple the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, although the international community has shown little inclination for this.

Syria blames the bloodshed on "armed gangs" and extremists implementing a foreign agenda to destabilise the regime.

Mr Al Assad has played on some of the country's worst fears to rally support behind him, painting himself as the lone force who can ward off the kind of radicalism and sectarianism that have bedevilled neighbours in Iraq and Lebanon. Tremors from the unrest in Syria could shake the region. Damascus's web of allegiances extends to Lebanon's powerful Hizbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy.

Syria's tactics have also strained relations with neighbours such as Turkey and Lebanon.

* Agence France-Press and Associated Press