x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Free Syrian Army vows to intensify resistance as observer mission stutters

The commander of Syria's rebels threatens to step up attacks on President Bashar Al Assad's forces.

An Arab League observer talks with Syrians during a tour in Deraa yesterday. The Syrian opposition has criticised the league’s mission, saying the regime is stage-managing their tours.
An Arab League observer talks with Syrians during a tour in Deraa yesterday. The Syrian opposition has criticised the league’s mission, saying the regime is stage-managing their tours.

BEIRUT // The commander of Syria's rebels yesterday threatened to step up attacks on President Bashar Al Assad's forces, saying he was frustrated with Arab League monitors' lack of progress in ending the government's crackdown on protests.

"If we feel they are still not serious in a few days, or at most within a week, we will take a decision that will surprise the regime and the whole world," said the head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Colonel Riad Al Asaad.

The Arab League said on Monday its monitors in Syria were helping to stem bloodshed 10 months into a mass uprising against Syria's ruling family, and asked for more time to do their job.

But since the team's arrival last week, security forces have killed at least 129 people, according to Reuters. Activist groups have said 390 have been killed.

The monitors have been checking whether Syria kept its promise to implement a league peace plan by withdrawing troops from flashpoint cities, starting dialogue with the opposition and releasing thousands detained in the revolt.

Gen Asaad, whose FSA is an umbrella group of armed factions, said he was waiting for the league's final report on its first week before deciding whether to make a "transformative shift" that would mark a major escalation against security forces.

Since the monitors arrived "we had many more martyrs", he said, speaking from his safe haven in southern Turkey.

"Is it in the Syrian people's interest to allow the massacre to continue?"

The league mission has already been plagued by controversy. Protesters have complained about its small size and were appalled when the head of the mission, a Sudanese general, suggested he was reassured by first impressions of Homs, one of the main centres of the unrest.

France's foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said yesterday it was crucial that monitors were able to act independently - protesters have complained security forces accompany monitors, making them difficult to approach.

"Do they truly have genuinely free access to information? We are waiting for the report they will produce in the coming days for more clarity," Mr Juppe said in an interview on TV news channel itele.

Mr Juppe said he was confident about the Arab League's determination, but the United Nations could not stand idly by as more people died. Russia continued to block UN progress on the issue, he said.

"The Security Council cannot remain silent," he said. "The savage repression is totally clear, the regime has no real future and that's why it's up to the international community to speak out."

The UN has said that more than 5,000 people have been killed by security forces.

Armed rebellion has begun to overshadow what began as peaceful protests as rebels fight back. Damascus has said it is fighting foreign-backed terrorists who have killed at least 2,000 members of the security forces.

Gen Asaad ordered a stop to attacks on security forces during the monitors' visit last week, but reports of assaults have continued to come in, highlighting concerns that the FSA does not fully control rebels.

The state news agency said terrorists blew up a gas pipeline near the central town of Rastan yesterday, cutting off supplies to two power plants and extending power cuts by at least an hour daily.

Activists said at least 12 people were killed across the country on Monday. The grassroots Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which put Monday's toll at 23, said the Arab League monitors were unable to end the violence or reach an independent assessment of its causes.

"The Arab League has fallen victim to the regime's typical traps in which observers have no choice but to witness regime-staged events and move about the country only with the full knowledge of the regime," the LCC said.

Political detainees at Damascus' central prison started a hunger strike in protest over an observer visit that met with jailed felons but not with political prisoners, their relatives told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"The people the monitors met had nothing to do with recent events, so these prisoners went on strike and are demanding monitors visit them," said Rami Abdelrahman, the head of the British-based Observatory.

The Arab League secretary general, Nabil Elaraby, said on Monday Syria's military had withdrawn from residential areas to the outskirts of the cities, but that gunfire continued and snipers were still a threat.

"We call upon the Syrian government to fully commit to what it promised," he said. He asked Syrians to "give the monitoring mission a chance to prove its presence on the ground".

Mr Elaraby said the monitors succeeded in getting food supplies into Homs, and had secured the release of 3,484 prisoners. Before the mission began, the rights group Avaaz had said 37,000 were still in detention.

On Sunday, the Arab Parliament, an 88-member committee of delegates from each of the league's member states, called for the monitors to leave Syria, saying their mission was providing cover for unabated violence and abuses by the government.

Kinan Shami, a member of the Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union activists' group, said from Damascus people were taking huge risks by gathering in cities where Arab League monitors were expected, in the hope of talking to them.