x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Damascus reacts 'positively' to plan to allow in observers

A faltering Arab League plan to end Syria's crisis may have been given a new lease of life, but Al Assad regime demands changes to proposal.

DAMASCUS // A faltering Arab League plan to end Syria's crisis may have been given a new lease of life yesterday, after Damascus said it was prepared to let a team of observers into the country.

A Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdesi, said the authorities had "responded positively to the signing of the protocol", in a letter sent by the foreign minister, Walid Moallem, to the Arab League on Sunday night.

Sana, the state-run news agency, said the Syrian government "would like to sign" up to the agreement, in exchange for lifting its suspension from the Arab League and ending economic sanctions imposed by the organisation.

Syria is also insisting upon recognition of the deal by the United Nations, which has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of Damascus over its violent suppression of an uprising.

However, last night no final agreement had been reached, with Syrian officials saying they had approved the plan subject to various modifications that have not, as yet, been accepted by the Arab League.

Nabil Al Arabi, the Arab League chief, confirmed receipt of a letter - just as the latest in a series of deadlines for agreement was about to expire late on Sunday - noting it contained "new demands" that were now under consideration.

"We've contacted Arab foreign ministers and they have been apprised of the Syrian letter," Mr Al Arabi said.

Previous efforts by Damascus to adjust the terms of the observers' mission were rejected on the grounds they would prevent the delegation from properly carrying out its work and seeing the true situation on the ground.

Mr Makdesi, who spoke to reporters in Damascus yesterday, characterised the alternations as "minor changes, which do not touch on the substance of the protocol". Syria had also asked for "clarifications" on the arrangements but these were "not linked to the nature of the mission", he said.

"We hope for a positive reply," Mr Makdesi added. "The success of this mission depends on Arab intentions."

One of the demands Syria has made is that a full list of names and nationalities of those taking part in the observer mission is disclosed in advance. It has also asked for a clear rejection of foreign interference in national affairs.

The Arab League had previously insisted on sending a team of 500 political, military and rights experts into the country, a much larger number than Damascus was prepared to accept.

Economic sanctions were imposed on Syria eight days ago by the league, after President Bashar Al Assad's regime refused to sign a formal protocol that would give the observer mission unimpeded access to areas at the heart of the uprising, including Homs, Deraa and Idleb.

Syria had previously been suspended from the Arab League after it failed to implement a peace plan to halt violence, pull tanks out of urban centres, free thousands of political prisoners and open talks with the opposition. Instead of abating, bloodshed only increased after that deal was agreed on November 2.

Political analysts in Damascus were cautious in their response to yesterday's outline accord, which came even as human-rights monitors said security forces had killed at least five civilians in Homs. More than 30 people were killed on Sunday, activists said.

"Until a signature has been put on paper, nothing has been agreed and this is all just talk," said one independent analyst, on condition of anonymity.

"We have been here before, with deals made only for them to be ignored or dropped a few days later," he said. "I will say the deal has been done when the observers are here and are able to freely go about their work, otherwise it is just a fiction."

Another analyst with strong links to regime officials said the decision to sign had come in response to significantly increasing pressure.

In addition to the Arab League sanctions, Syria's economy is facing an embargo from the United States, the European Union and Turkey, while criticism over human-rights abuses has escalated within the United Nations, prompting calls for international protection for Syrian civilians.

Inside the country, the sense of desperation has become pronounced in recent weeks, with fuel and electricity shortages now routine, price rises affecting important basic goods, a rapidly weakening currency and widespread expectations that the worst is yet to come.

"With all the economic sanctions, international and domestic problems Syria is facing, it had to do something to ease the strain," the analyst said. "But this is not a solution, it has not addressed any of the underlying problems in this crisis, we are still nowhere near a resolution of this."

He said Russia and China, which have given crucial diplomatic support to Mr Al Assad in the UN Security Council, had both leaned on Syria to adhere to the Arab League peace plan.

"Moscow wants to see this resolved politically," he said. "We are still waiting to see if the [Syrian] regime is prepared or able to put in place such a political solution."

More than 4,000 civilians have been killed since the uprising began in March, according to the United Nations. The UN's human-rights office last week issued a report saying Syrian security services had responded to overwhelmingly peaceful demands for political reform with "systematic" abuse - including murder and torture - under orders from top-level regime officials.

Syrian officials have dismissed those claims as politically motivated efforts to justify foreign military intervention. Mr Al Assad insists his country is facing a violent insurrection by foreign-backed militants, targeting Syria for its support of Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas and opposition to Israel and the US.