x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Time to end tragedy in Syria, Arab League told

Arab foreign ministers hold heated discussions on the use of international force in Syria at a meeting overshadowed by Barack Obama's decision to delay striking the Assad regime.

A Free Syrian Army fighter rests in a safe house in Aleppo.
A Free Syrian Army fighter rests in a safe house in Aleppo.

CAIRO // Arab foreign ministers held heated discussions last night on the use of international force in Syria at a meeting overshadowed by Barack Obama's decision to delay striking the Assad regime.

Inside the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo, diplomats heard passionate speeches from some of Bashar Al Assad's bitterest critics, including members of the opposition Syrian National Council and nations backing the Syrian rebels.

Saud Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, called on the world community to take all necessary steps to deter Syrian government violence.

"It's time to call on the international community to take on responsibilities to put an end to this tragedy," he said.

The Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy also called for the Syrian regime to be punished, but seemed to stop short of endorsing western strikes, and said Egypt opposed foreign intervention.

The US secretary of state John Kerry said yesterday that samples of blood and hair from last week's chemical weapons attack on the eastern edges of Damascus indicated the presence of the nerve gas sarin. A preliminary US assessment said 1,429 people were killed in the attack, including at least 426 children.

In the Syrian capital, state media crowed at what they called "the start of the historic American retreat" after the US president's decision to wait until September 9 to consult Congress on whether to deploy weapons in Syria.

Al Thawra newspaper said Mr Obama had signalled this retreat by "prevaricating or hinting", rather than deciding alone to strike Syrian military targets.

But in Cairo last night Ahmed Jarba, leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, said Syrians had asked him to call on the Arab world to support a military operation against the Assad regime and its "terrorist allies" Iran and Hizbollah.

"What I'm asking is a sincere stance, and a sincere support for this military strike, and then afterwards, the Free Syrian Army will finish the situation," he said.

Several Arab leaders, many of whom had been pushing privately for western action in Syria, had been confused and disappointed by Mr Obama's announcement on Saturday to postpone military action, according to analysts.

"We have a president in Obama, who was leading these efforts regarding punishing Assad for using chemical weapons and we have a president who has changed his mind," said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Institute in Doha.

"I believe the Arab states understood that Obama was going to do a strike - possibly overnight … but now, there will be a lot of head-scratching in Arab capitals."

Before the meeting, US allies in the Arabian Gulf reacted with surprise and frustration to Mr Obama's decision.

"Obama threw a wrench in everything. The decision took a lot of people by surprise," said Abdullah Al Shayji, head of political science at Kuwait University. "It will send the wrong message to the Syrian leadership and to Iran and Hizbollah, who already think that Obama is not really serious about this strike."

Before the announcement, several Gulf countries had argued in private for more assertive intervention in Syria and had been expected to push for a strong resolution in Cairo - perhaps even one that could have fulfilled Mr Obama's request made on Saturday for allies to "stand publicly behind" US action.

The Gulf Cooperation Council under-secretary general made the most explicit case so far for military intervention yesterday, saying that Syria warrants invoking the "Responsibility to Protect", a UN-endorsed doctrine that allows for international intervention when a country fails to provide - or intentionally denies - security to its citizens.

"The Syrian regime is acting as a sectarian militia supported by like-minded Hizbollah and Iranian forces, and unbound by rules of war or civilised behaviour," Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg wrote in Saudi Arabia's Arab News. "It has become incompressible while the international community has yet to move to protect Syrians from annihilation."

Youssef Al Qaradawi, a Sunni imam in Doha who is close to Qatar's leadership, also gave his implicit support for a US intervention. He told worshippers at Friday prayers: "We wish we were able to take revenge for our brothers who have been killed … in their hundreds, but God prepares those who would take revenge for them".

Analysts say Gulf countries may now be less likely to publicly support US military action, if and when it comes.

"There won't be any GCC initiative or participation in any military exercise - as a result of or substitute for - or even in conjunction with - US military action. The delay is looked upon from many corners of the world that there is a weakness in the US position," said Kuwait University's Mr Al Shayji.

Many of Mr Al Assad's fiercest critics in the Gulf worry the limited strikes proposed by the US administration would have a limited or even detrimental effect on the Syrian rebellion.

A one-off attack could strengthen Mr Al Assad's position and "mobilise supporters around him", wrote the Saudi columnist Khalaf Al Harbi in Saudi daily Okaz yesterday. He argued for a more robust military operation that would allow rebels to "pounce" on the regime.

Despite the delay in possible US military action, fears of a broader regional conflict are growing more palpable across the Gulf. In Kuwait, several MPs called for parliament to hold an emergency session on the crisis over the weekend.

afordham@thenational.ae

edickinson@thenational.ae

* Elizabeth Dickinson reported from Abu Dhabi

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