Deadly Syria assault puts pressure on Arabs to act

Published Nov 12, 2011 12:06pm

Demonstrators protesting against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad gather in Deraa, in this undated handout released on November 11, 2011. - Photo by Reuters

CAIRO: A week of deadly violence in the Syrian city of Homs piled pressure on Arab foreign ministers who began an emergency meeting in Cairo on Saturday to consider their next step as Damascus stalled an Arab plan to end the violence.

President Bashar al-Assad's regime agreed on November 2 to an Arab roadmap which called for the release of detainees, the withdrawal of the army from urban areas and free movement for observers and the media, as well as negotiations with the opposition.

Instead, human rights groups say, the regime has intensified its crackdown on dissent, especially in flashpoint Homs, killing at least 125 people in the city since signing onto the League's deal.

“Homs is a microcosm of the Syrian government's brutality,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, which accused the regime of crimes against humanity based on its systematic abuses against civilians.

“The Arab League needs to tell President Assad that violating their agreement has consequences, and that it now supports Security Council action to end the carnage,” she said.

Human Rights Watch, like protesters and Syrian opposition leaders, urged the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership of the pan-Arab bloc as punishment for its brutal eight-month crackdown on dissent.

The ministers, who began their meeting around 1030 GMT, will first listen to a report from a ministerial task force which negotiated the peace blueprint with the Syrian government.

Diplomats have floated several options available to meeting, such as freezing Syria's membership in the Arab League.

But such a move would end the bloc's influence over Assad.

Khaled al-Habbas, an assistant to Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, told the reporters before the meeting that the situation in Syria was “complex” and “Arab countries are trying to find a solution that reconciles different viewpoints.

”At least 23 people were killed in violence in Syria on Friday alone, most of them civilians in Homs, which an opposition group declared a “humanitarian disaster area” earlier this week.

With Nato ruling out operations and UN Security Council sanctions unlikely because veto-wielding permanent members Russia and China are allies of Assad's regime, regional actors have come to represent the best avenue to pressure Damascus.

Damascus says it has moved forward on the deal by releasing 500 prisoners and Syrian envoy to the Arab League, Yussef Ahmad, expressed on Friday his government's willingness to receive a pan-Arab delegation.

“This will help assess Damascus's commitment to the (Arab) plan and to unveil motives behind certain external and internal parties working for the failure of the Arab blueprint,” the official SANA news agency quoted the envoy as saying.

Despite the Assad regime's prevarication, the United States insists its days are numbered and says that even Arab leaders are encouraging him to step down quickly.

“Some Arab leaders already have begun to offer Assad safe haven in an effort to encourage him to leave peaceably and quickly,” said Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

“Almost all the Arab leaders say the same thing – Assad's rule is coming to an end.

Change in Syria is now inevitable,” Feltman told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a hearing.


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