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Arab League Steps Up Pressure on Syria and Calls for U.N. Help

posted on: Feb 13, 2012


The Arab League asked the United Nations Security Council on Sunday to send a peacekeeping mission to Syria, and it called on Arab nations to sever diplomatic relations with Damascus in an effort to pressure the government to end the violence there.

At a meeting of foreign ministers in Cairo, the league grasped for new ways to end a conflict that appeared to be escalating into a civil war. The league’s observer mission to Syria failed to end the bloodshed last month.

The ministers adopted a resolution asking the Security Council to authorize a joint Arab-United Nations force to “supervise the execution of a cease-fire,” and it urged the league’s members to “halt all forms of diplomatic cooperation” with the Syrian government.

The resolution said that the league supported “opening channels of communication with the Syrian opposition and providing all forms of political and financial support to it,” although it did not specify what that support would be, nor did it recognize the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group, as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

But the ministers also sought continued diplomatic efforts. The league’s secretary general, Nabil El Araby, said a joint peacekeeping force “should go hand in hand with a political track.”

“The violence cannot stop without a common view on a political compromise,” he added.

Such a compromise appeared distant. Syria said Sunday night that it “completely rejected” the proposal, the state news agency, Sana, reported.

Sana reported that the Syrian ambassador to the league, Yousef Ahmad, said Damascus was “not interested in any decision issued” by the group, which suspended Syria’s membership in November. He said the decision reflected “hysteria and confusion” by Arab countries led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The government’s assault on Syrian cities, including Homs and Zabadani, showed no sign of letting up.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that operates out of Britain, said 26 people were killed on Sunday, including 14 in Homs and 8 government soldiers in Hama.

The Local Coordination Committees, a domestic opposition group, said 23 people had been killed, including 9 in Dara’a and 5 in Homs.

The numbers do not match up because the two groups rely on their own contacts in each city. Any numbers are difficult to confirm because Syria has barred most foreign reporters from entering the country.

A video from Homs posted on YouTube appeared to show a doctor pleading with the Arab League for a more effective approach. “We need action, not more declarations,” he said.

In Aleppo, Syria, a common funeral was held for the 25 victims killed in an attack against two security headquarters there on Friday. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Sunni extremists, possibly from Iraq, have been blamed.

Mr. El Araby said the situation in Syria required a much larger monitoring mission, drawn from around the Arab world as well as from the members of the United Nations, and should be deployed as quickly as possible. The ministers were considering a force of 3,000 members, according to Arab satellite television reports, far larger than the group of about 200 observers sent with the Arab League mission that was suspended in January.

Mohammed al-Dabi, the controversial Sudanese general who led the earlier Arab League mission, officially resigned from that post on Sunday, news reports said.

Given the Syrian government’s initial response, it was unlikely that it would accept a new force. The presence of the Arab League mission, even if it was thwarted in its work, was considered something of a brake on the government violence against civilians.

It also appeared unlikely that the United Nations would approve such a mission. The Security Council has been reluctant in the past to deploy peacekeeping missions when there is no peace to keep. The Security Council is also deeply divided over Syria, with Russia and China having vetoed a resolution this month supported by the West and Arab countries that called for an end to the violence in Syria.

Western and Arab nations have formed a Friends of Syria contact group, the same kind of international alliance that was used to bring pressure on Libya. The organizers see it as another avenue for diplomacy and international action. Tunisia offered on Sunday to host a meeting of the group on Feb. 24.

Speaking at the open session of the Arab League meeting, the Tunisian foreign minister, Rafik Ben Adessalam, said Syrians had the same right to freedom as the people of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Tunisia and Libya expelled Syrian diplomats from their capitals after the recent escalation of violence against civilians. In response, Damascus ordered on Friday that the two countries’ embassies be closed within 72 hours. The expulsion of most Syrian diplomats was anticipated across the Arab world.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said Sunday that international armed intervention in Syria should be ruled out, but that the violence had to be stopped and that the government of President Bashar al-Assad should not be given any more chances. Syria has repeatedly stalled in carrying out an Arab League peace plan that it accepted in November.

“The lack of commitment of the Syrian government is obvious,” Prince Saud said. “What Syria is witnessing is not racist, nor sectarian, nor guerrilla war, but a mass purge without any humanitarian considerations.”

On Monday, the United Nations General Assembly is expected to take up the issue, focusing on humanitarian concerns and a draft Saudi proposal calling for support of the Arab League plan. Such General Assembly resolutions are nonbinding but considered a kind of poll of public opinion worldwide.

Liam Stack, Neil MacFarquhar
New York Times