x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Hotline set up to help topple Assad

Groups agree on ways to bolster fighters' capabilities and how to deal with claimed daily arrival of deserters from Syrian security forces.

Members of the Free Syrian Army demonstrate against President Bashar Al Assad in the northern town of Maaret Al Numan yesterday.
Members of the Free Syrian Army demonstrate against President Bashar Al Assad in the northern town of Maaret Al Numan yesterday.

BEIRUT //Syrian opposition groups announced yesterday that they had set up a hotline to help coordinate organisations working to bring down the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) said the decision to set up a hotline and a liaison office was made during talks with the main armed opposition group, the Free Syrian Army.

The rebel army, which is largely comprised of defected Syrian soldiers, and the SNC talked on Saturday. They also discussed ways of bolstering the armed group's capabilities against Syrian security forces.

Talks between the two groups also focused on restructuring the rebel-army units and ways to absorb what the opposition has said is the daily arrival of soldiers deserting their Syrian military posts.

The Free Syrian Army, which is led by a former Syrian army colonel, Riad Al Asaad, said 40,000 men have joined its ranks in the 10 months since the uprising against the regime of Mr Al Assad began.

Yesterday, Syria's state news agency reported that an "armed terrorist group" shot and killed a high-ranking member of the Syrian army in the area of Ghotta.

The regime maintains it has lost more than 2,000 members of its security forces since the uprising began. The UN estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the violence that erupted when government forces launched a crackdown on anti-regime protests that began in March of last year.

The Local Coordination Committees said yesterday that more than 40 Palestinians have also been killed in the clashes and many arrested.

The group, a Syrian opposition organisation that documents the uprising and plans events on the ground, published a list of names of Palestinians it said have been killed in places including Damascus, Deraa, Homs and Lattakia. The allegations could not be independently confirmed.

Syria is home to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

In recent weeks, concerns have been raised that the escalating violence could push the country towards civil war. More defections appear to be taking place, with a Syrian member of parliament, Imad Ghalioun, announcing on Sunday that he had fled the country to join the opposition. He maintains that there are other MPs who support the revolt against the Al Assad regime, but who are yet to speak out.

Mr Ghalioun, who represented the city of Homs, spoke to the Al Arabiya news channel from Egypt, saying that the Syrian people were "living their worst period".

"The people of Homs are under siege and the city is disaster-stricken," he said. "There is no electricity, piles of garbage fill the streets ... the sounds of shelling all night terrify children."

During a visit to Beirut on Sunday, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, urged Mr Al Assad to "stop killing your people". Speaking in Abu Dhabi yesterday, Mr Ban said that he hoped the UN Security Council members will act to resolve the crisis.

Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, has condemned what he described as the "silence" of the Security Council in the face of the mounting death toll in Syria. France also yesterday accused Iran of repeatedly violating a UN arms embargo against Syria.

"These arms deliveries are illegal and deeply shocking because they benefit a regime that has chosen a kind of repression that the UN rights council has repeatedly said constitutes 'crimes against humanity'," said the foreign ministry spokesman, Romain Nadal.

The Arab League has, so far, taken the lead role in efforts to end the crisis. However, its observer mission to monitor compliance with a peace plan has been criticised, with some alleging it has been exploited and used as a cover while authorities continue using deadly force against protesters.

The 22-member organisation is due to meet on Sunday to discuss the mission's progress, as Arab foreign ministers consider their next step on Syria.

A team of Arab League observers reportedly visited the coastal town of Baniyas and the northern Syrian town of Maaret Al Numan on Sunday, where they were met by thousands of anti-government protesters.

Video posted on the internet, which could not be independently verified, appeared to show a crowd of demonstrators shouting "victory for our revolution".

Also on Sunday, the Syrian government announced a general amnesty for peaceful demonstrators, army deserters and those who carried unlicensed weapons.

Opposition groups quickly dismissed the proposed pardons, which the Muslim Brotherhood described as "neither serious nor credible".


* With additional reports by Agence France-Presse, Reuters and the Associated Press