x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

GCC pulls monitors out of Syria

The move follows Saudi Arabi's decision on Sunday to withdraw its monitors because it said Syria was ignoring its obligations under a GCC-brokered peace deal.

DAMASCUS // The Arab League observer mission to Syria was on the brink of collapse last night after Gulf states pulled out and Damascus hesitated before finally agreeing a one-month extension for the monitoring teams.

The Gulf Cooperation Council said yesterday monitors from all its member states would be withdrawn after Syria failed to implement an agreement with the Arab League to halt 10 months of bloodshed. The move follows Saudi Arabi's decision on Sunday to withdraw its monitors because it said Syria was ignoring its obligations under a GCC-brokered peace deal.

The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moallem, had indicated that Damascus would end its involvement with the observers after the Arab League's demand on Sunday that Bashar Al Assad step down as president within two months.

Last night Mr Moallem told the Arab League in a letter that Syria agreed to extend the mission until February 23, the state news agency Sana reported. Without such an agreement the Arab League said it would have suspended the work of the much criticised observer mission.

"Definitely the solution in Syria is not the solution suggested by the Arab League, which we have rejected," Mr Moallem said in a televised news conference in Damascus yesterday.

"They have abandoned their role as the Arab League and we no longer want Arab solutions to the crisis."

He dismissed regional states' ability to act against Syria or enforce their plan to end four decades of Assad family rule. "Syria is a mountain that cannot be affected by the wind," he said.

Despite the presence of monitors, violence and arrests have continued. Activists say more than 900 civilians and defecting soldiers have been killed by security services since the observers began work last month.

Mr Moallem said the killing of security personnel by "armed groups" had also accelerated with the observers in place, apparently contradicting claims by Mustafa Al Dabi, the monitors' chief, that the death rate had eased.

Yesterday, another 40 civilians were killed, mostly in the restive city of Homs, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of grassroots activists.

Announcing the pullout of 55 Gulf monitors from the 165-person observer mission, the GCC urged the United Nations Security Council to take "all needed measures" to support the Arab League plan.

European states said they would once more seek to put Syria on the Security Council agenda, after the league's request for UN assistance in overseeing a transition to democracy in a post-Assad era.

Arab League diplomats met the ambassadors to the UN from Germany, France and Britain on Monday to discuss what steps to take next.

It remains unclear if the Security Council impasse can be broken, with Russia showing no clear sign that it is willing to end its support for Mr Al Assad, a key regional ally.

Moscow has vetoed a previous attempt to pass a resolution critical of the Syrian regime, saying western powers would use it as an excuse to take military action to oust the Syrian president.

In his remarks yesterday, Mr Moallem made plain just how much the Syrian regime is pinning its hopes on allies Iran and Russia for support, now that Arab states have turned decisively against it.

"Russia will not agree on the foreign interference in Syria's internal affairs and this is a red line," the Syrian foreign minister said, describing the Russian stance as "solid" and its relationship with Syria as "very deep-rooted".

Ties between Damascus and Tehran were similarly "strong and deep-rooted", he said.

Opposition factions inside Syria have recently met Russian, Chinese and Iranian diplomats in an effort to unpick their alliances with Mr Al Assad.

"Russia will stick with the Syrian regime until it becomes a liability and no longer serves Moscow's interests, and the same is true for Iran," said one leading Syrian opposition figure. "Our job is to show them that this time has already come and I think we will be able to do that, they are coming around to the idea, we will continue to talk to them directly about this." Syrian officials have promised "comprehensive reforms" since the start of the uprising in March.

In June, Mr Moallem insisted Damascus would become a model democracy in the region, a pledge he repeated yesterday.

He said national dialogue would take place and a new constitution would soon be put to a referendum.

Reports in Syrian media suggest this proposed constitution will open the way for Mr Al Assad to retain power for another 14 years, once his current term of office expires in 2014.

Mr Moallem also defended the authorities' use of deadly force, saying security services were battling terrorists.

"The Syrian government should take the measures it sees as suitable with regard to the gunmen who are wreaking havoc in some areas," he said. "The stance of the Syrian leadership towards what Syria is facing, inside or outside it, is firm and strong … Syria will deal firmly with the armed terrorist groups."

An armed rebellion has grown alongside widespread peaceful protests, with defecting soldiers and civilians increasingly taking up weapons to fight security services.

Opposition activists said this has come in response to appalling abuse, including torture and murder, by regime loyalists.

Syrian officials still insist that they are fighting a foreign backed Islamist insurgency and, in his remarks yesterday, Mr Moallem said that the "plot" against Damascus had been highlighted by the Arab League's call for Mr Al Assad to step down.