Thursday, November 3, 2011

Next Up - to go Down - Syria's Assad


By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times,0,5103822.story

November 6, 2011
Reporting from Beirut—

The Syrian government lashed out at the Obama administration Saturday for "blatant interference in Syrian affairs" after the State Department advised people in the country against surrendering as part of an amnesty offered by the regime.

Syria accused Washington of "inciting sedition, supporting the acts of killing and terrorism," the official Syrian news agency said, quoting an official source at the Foreign Ministry.

Damascus frequently denounces "foreign" interference, but Saturday's broadside was among the most pointed outbursts. The Obama administration has called for President Bashar Assad to step down amid an uprising in the police state that has seen an estimated 3,000 civilians killed.

The comments came a day after State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declared that she would counsel Syrians to reject the amnesty, in which those the government terms arms violators were asked to turn themselves in with their weapons "to the nearest police station" during a one-week period that began Saturday. Those who surrender and have not killed anyone "will be released soon," the Interior Ministry vowed.

"I wouldn't advise anybody to turn themselves in to regime authorities at the moment," Nuland told reporters in Washington. The department had no further comment Saturday.

The opposition called the amnesty a sham and a trap in a police state where thousands of suspects are being held incommunicado.

Meanwhile, the head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, warned in Cairo on Saturday of "disastrous consequences" if a league-brokered peace pact for Syria fails.

Assad last week agreed to the league plan, which calls for a withdrawal of troops from populated areas, a release of prisoners and a new "dialogue" with opponents, among other terms.

The opposition accuses the Assad regime of ignoring the peace pact and continuing to attack protesters. Activists said that 22 people were killed Saturday, including 19 in the central city of Homs, the site of fierce clashes and apparent sectarian slayings.

The opposition calls itself a peaceful coalition seeking democratic change. But it also has an armed component, including military defectors. The Syrian government says "armed groups" are driving the unrest and have killed more than 1,000 security personnel.

The government linked the amnesty and its Saturday announcement that it would release 553 detainees "with no blood on their hands" for the Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday, which begins Sunday.
But the timing of the measures suggests the action may be related to the Arab League peace blueprint. Regime opponents see a cynical calculation: Once few Syrians turn themselves in, the government can respond by saying it cannot withdraw troops from protest-racked cities.

Critics doubt that the government will pull back its forces, especially from the hotbed cities of Homs and Hama, which, opposition activists say, could fall partially or fully into opposition hands without a heavy security presence.

Since the outset of the crisis, the Assad administration has aggressively sought to ensure that the opposition cannot hold any "liberated" zones, as happened in Libya with the eastern city of Benghazi, which became a center of revolt.

By Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT | Tue Nov 1, 2011 5:46pm EDT

(Reuters) - Syria said on Tuesday it had reached agreement with an Arab League committee tasked with finding a way to end seven months of unrest and starting a dialogue between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents.

State media reported "agreement regarding a final document on the situation in Syria," without giving details, saying an official announcement would be made at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Wednesday.

But a senior Arab League official said the organization was still awaiting a response from Damascus to proposals for halting the bloodshed, which activists said continued on Tuesday with two civilians shot dead by Assad's forces in Homs and two soldiers killed by army deserters in an ambush.

One activist said gunmen dragged nine people, all of them from Assad's minority Alawite sect, from a bus on a road between the cities of Homs and Hama, and killed them.

The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have been killed in Assad's crackdown on an uprising which erupted in March against his rule, inspired by revolutions which have toppled three Arab leaders this year.

Most Syrian opposition figures reject dialogue with authorities while the violence continues, and one activist said he feared any agreement in Cairo would give Assad a green light to continue his military campaign to crush dissent.

The United States, which has imposed sanctions on Syria's oil industry and key state businesses in response to Assad's crackdown, said that if Syria's accepted and implemented the Arab League's proposals it would be "very welcome."

But, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a briefing in Washington, "we have had a lot of promises of reform and only violence in terms of the action that we have seen from the Assad regime. So let's wait and see: a) whether we really have a deal here and b) whether that deal is implemented."

Syrian authorities blame militants who it says are armed and financed from abroad for the violence, saying they have killed 1,100 members of the security forces.

Arab League ministers met Syrian officials in Qatar on Sunday to seek a way to end the bloodshed.
Arab diplomats said the ministers proposed that Syria release immediately prisoners held since February, withdraw security forces from the streets, permit deployment of Arab League monitors and start a dialogue with the opposition.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country heads the Arab League ministerial committee, also said Assad must launch serious reforms if Syria were to avoid further violence.

A Lebanese official with close ties to the government in Damascus said Syria had put forward its own proposals to the Arab League.

"The Syrian authorities want the opposition to drop weapons, the Arab states to end their funding for the weapons and the opposition, and an end to the media campaign against Syria," the official told Reuters.

It was not clear how much those demands were reflected in the final agreement announced by Syria's state media.


Omar Idlibi, a member of the grassroots Local Coordination Committee and member of the National Council, said the opposition wanted to see details of the agreement.

"We fear that this agreement is another attempt to give the regime a new chance to crush this revolution and kill more Syrians," he said.

"It helps the Syrian regime to remain in power while the demands of the people are clear in terms of toppling the regime and its unsuitability even to lead a transitional period."

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, speaking before the Syrian announcement, said the Syrian leadership was "using the power of the weapon in its hand to try to silence the people."

Erdogan, once a close ally of Assad's, said Syria had taken their alliance for granted and ignored Turkish advice on how to respond to the protests which began with calls for reform but now demand an end to four decades of Assad family rule.

"The Syrian people will achieve the results of that glorious resistance," he told a meeting of his AK Party in parliament. "The people of Syria will secure themselves their rights and freedoms."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Arab League proposal offered both sides in Syria the chance to "decide their own future through national dialogue, national reconciliation, peacefully without resorting to violence."

Lavrov, speaking in Abu Dhabi, also said Russia would not allow NATO's military intervention in Libya -- which helped topple Muammar Gaddafi -- to be repeated in Syria.

Protesters in Syria have increasingly called for foreign intervention, although NATO has repeatedly said it has no plans for military action in Syria.

Assad told Russian television on Sunday he would cooperate with the opposition, but in another interview he warned Western powers they would cause an "earthquake" in the Middle East if they intervened in Syria, after protesters demanded outside protection to stop the killing of civilians.

Syria sits at the heart of the volatile Middle East, sharing borders with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

"It is the faultline, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake," Assad said. "Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?"

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul and Mahmoud Habboush in Abu Dhabi; Writing byDominic Evans; Editing by Jon Hemming)

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN | Thu Nov 3, 2011 1:06pm EDT

(Reuters) - Syrian security forces killed 10 people in Homs on Thursday, activists said, and there was no sign yet of troops leaving cities under an Arab League agreement to end bloodshed after seven months of protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Syria, under mounting pressure to halt a crackdown that the United Nations says has killed over 3,000 people, agreed on Wednesday to an Arab League plan to pull the army out of cities, free political prisoners and hold talks with the opposition.

The authorities blame the violence on Islamist militants and armed gangs who they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby briefed members of the main opposition National Council on the plan in Cairo.

"We did not talk with the secretary-general about a dialogue with the regime," council member Samir Nashar was quoted by Egypt's MENA news agency as saying after the meeting.

"We discussed entering negotiations with the authorities to move from a totalitarian to a democratic system, and demanded that President Assad leaves power," he said.

Assad's critics have dismissed his past offers of dialogue, with some saying bloodshed must stop first and others saying that only his resignation can end the conflict.

Paris-based Burhan Ghalioun, a leading National Council member, questioned whether Syria would implement the plan.

"The regime has accepted the Arab initiative out of fear of Arab isolation, its weakness and lack of options. But its acceptance does not mean it will respect its clauses," he wrote.

In Syria, some demonstrators celebrated the Arab League initiative, but residents and activists said troops remained in cities and security operations continued, especially in Homs.

Tanks fired heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft guns in that city's Bab Amro district, a hotbed of protests and scene of operations by the military against insurgents hiding there.

Activists said at least 10 civilians had been killed in the bombardment of Bab Amro and in violence elsewhere in Homs, a central Syrian city of one million, where army snipers were shooting from rooftops and soldiers fired from checkpoints.

"We slept late because there were overnight street rallies celebrating the Arab initiative. This morning we woke up to rain and shelling," Samer, an activist in Bab Amro, said by phone.


Another resident said the sound of explosions was rocking the city, and activists were calling on people to donate blood for makeshift hospitals in and around the center of Homs.

Activists and residents reported army reinforcements at roadblocks in towns across the southern Hauran Plain, where troops fired in the air to disperse overnight protests.

Early in the morning, an armored column fired machineguns in the air after entering al-Madiq castle near the Roman ruins of Apamea in the Ghab Plain, which has seen protests and has emerged as a refuge for army defectors, local activists said.

In the Damascus suburb of Harasta, at least 120 protesters were arrested overnight after celebrating the Arab League deal, a resident said.

Tough Syrian media restrictions have made it hard to verify events on the ground since an uprising against Assad began in March, inspired by other revolts in the Arab world.

The Arab plan calls for Syria to allow journalists, as well as Arab League monitors, into the country.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Wednesday it was pressing Syria for wider access to thousands of detainees arrested in pro-democracy protests.

Western sanctions and growing criticism from Turkey and Arab neighbors have raised pressure on Syria to end the bloodshed.

"We are happy to have reached this agreement and we will be even happier when it is implemented immediately," said Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar, which leads an Arab League committee behind the plan agreed in Cairo.

China, which along with Russia, has resisted imposing U.N sanctions on Syria, welcomed the Arab League plan.

"We believe this marks an important step toward easing the situation in Syria and the early launching of an inclusive political process with broad participation from all parties in Syria," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

Despite the latest violence, Sami Baroudi, a political analyst at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, said it was too early to judge whether Syria would honor the agreement.

"It will take at least a couple of days to see whether the intensity of violence is going down or up, or staying at the same level," Baroudi said. "I wouldn't throw this initiative into the waste basket because nothing happened immediately."

After the deal was announced in Cairo, the United States reiterated its call for the Syrian president to quit.

The Arab League has not suspended Syria's membership or backed international intervention, as it did against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi's, who was toppled by NATO-backed rebels.

(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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