x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Nine more die as Syria stalls on Arab League peace plan

Qatar's prime minister expects request from the Arab League to be accepted but fears things could get out of Arab control.

Syria said yesterday it was still negotiating with the Arab League over the request to send observers into the country, as tightening sanctions by Arab and other nations failed to halt the crackdown on protesters.

Arab leaders had given Syria a new deadline of yesterday to respond to the League's peace plan, which calls for the admission of observers to ensure compliance with a government ceasefire. They also held out the threat of pushing for UN involvement if Syria balks.

A Qatari official said Syria had asked for "new clarifications and further amendments to be made to the protocol which was proposed" to cover the deployment of the observer mission. But the Arab ministers had refused.

Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr Al Thani, said on Saturday during a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Doha that he expected Syrian envoys to sign the agreement, but that failure to reach a deal may lead to UN involvement, although he did not spell out what that meant. "As Arabs, we fear if the situation continues, things will get out of Arab control," Sheikh Hamad said.

At least six people were killed in new violence yesterday, including a female university professor and a father and his three children, opposition activists said.

They also said that at least a dozen Syrian secret police had defected in what appeared to be the first major desertion from a service that has acted as a pillar of President Bashar Al Assad's rule.

A US State Department official said yesterday that the world was looking for peaceful ways to end "killing and brutality" in Syria, accusing Iran of supporting the murder of Syrian people.

"We think it is appalling what is happening in Syria, that you have Bashar Al Assad basically driving the country to violence and sectarian strife by the actions he is taking. We believe that in full light of monitors and media, the security services reporting to Assad and his clique would not be able to operate the way they are operating now," said Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, in Amman.

Syria's failure to meet a November 25 deadline to allow in observers drew Arab League sanctions.

Some sanctions - the Central Bank ban, a halt to Arab government funding of projects in Syria and a freeze of Syrian government assets - went into effect immediately.

The Syrian government said yesterday it was suspending a 2004 free-trade agreement with Turkey in response to the penalties imposed by its former close ally.

As a reciprocal measure, it added, all Turkish imports would be subject to customs fees.

Turkey imposed tough new sanctions against Damascus last week that included the suspension of all ties to the Syrian Central Bank and freezing any Syrian government assets in Turkey.

The violence and sanctions have already had a crippling effect on Syria's US$59 billion (Dh216.7bn) economy, which had grown at a rate of about 5 per cent a year throughout the late 2000s as the regime of Mr Al Assad became increasingly receptive to foreign investment and trade. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the country's economy will shrink by 2 per cent this year following growth of 3.2 per cent last year.

"The effects of sanctions are already being felt across the country, including those close to the regime," said Ghanem Nuseibeh, a partner at Cornerstone Global Associates and analyst with Political Capital in London.

Successfully targeting Mr Al Assad while not harming the Syrian population "will not be easy to achieve", he added.

Among the Arab League restrictions was a travel ban and asset freeze on 19 officials and people linked to the regime. The list did not include Mr Al Assad, but did contain some of his closest associates, among them his brother Maher Assad and several other relatives.

The new sanctions also prohibit the sale of weapons by Arab countries to Syria and halve the number of flights to and from Syria starting on December 15.

The Arab League strove to insulate Syria's neighbours from the fallout.

It ordered a committee to consider exemption requests from neighbouring countries and called for a study of alternate maritime routes for trade between Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf.

The latest stand-off between the Syria and the Arab League comes as the death toll from violence across the country on Saturday and yesterday rose to at least 31, and after the UN Human Rights Council accused Damascus of "gross violations" of human rights.

In Geneva on Friday, an emergency meeting of the Human Rights Council passed a resolution "strongly condemning the continued widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities".

Damascus rejected the resolution as "unjust" and said it was "prepared in advance by parties hostile to Syria".

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said in Geneva on Friday that at least 4,000 people have been killed in the crackdown since mid-March.

"We are placing the figure at 4,000. But the information coming to us is that it's much more," she said.

* With reporting by Asa Fitch, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse