GCC heavyweights mull new action on Syria

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 12 Feb 2012

Saudi and Qatar call for ratcheting up pressure on embattled Syrian regime; Leaked Arab League draft resolution calls for 'halt of all diplomatic activity' with Damascus

The Syrian flag is seen in front of the empty chair of the Syrian representative during the Arab League Syria Group meeting in Cairo (Photo:AP)

Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hammed Ben Jassim and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal on Sunday slammed Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad regime for what they described as "the mad war" and "ethnic cleansing" being waged by the regime against the Syrian people.

Speaking at the opening session of a special Arab League meeting on Syria that convened in Cairo, the two heavyweight Gulf diplomats also criticised regional and international support – especially on the part of Russia and China – for Damascus, which has been fighting a heavily armed insurgency since March of last year. 

"The Syrian leadership has decided to go on killing its people and destroying its country in order to stay in power," Al-Faisal said at the meeting.

Al-Faisal’s assertions come less than two days after Saudi King Abdullah expressed “deep concern” over developments in Syria. Riyadh also recently referred to the UN General Assembly a draft resolution demanding joint Arab League-UN cooperation aimed at protecting Syrian civilians.

Some diplomatic sources expect the Arab League to adopt a draft resolution later on Sunday. According to leaks in the press, the draft states that Arab ministers had decided to "halt all kinds of diplomatic cooperation with representatives of the Syrian regime in all states and organisations and international conferences." The resolution leaves room, however, for each country to take its own decision on the matter.

The draft also calls for an Arab League meeting on Syria in Tunisia on 24 February.

The draft resolution further stresses "the need to implement economic sanctions and an end to commercial transactions with the Syrian regime, except in what concerns the Syrian people directly."

Arab ministers at Sunday's meeting also agreed to end the current Arab League observer mission in Syria, calling on league Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi to name an envoy to monitor the political situation in the troubled country.

El-Arabi is currently mulling the appointment of former Jordanian foreign minister Abdel-Illah Al-Khatib to head the league’s mission in Syria. Al-Khatib would be mandated with verifying Syria’s commitment to implementing earlier promises to end the violence and release political prisoners.

El-Khatib served as the UN secretary-general’s envoy to Libya following the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution last year to provide protection to the Libyan rebels who ultimately overthrew and murdered Libya's longstanding ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

At Sunday’s meeting, both Al-Faisal and Ben Jassim reiterated their ostensible opposition to foreign military intervention in Syria, expressing a preference for an Arab peacekeeping force and eventual regime change.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and four other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states had earlier proposed an initiative calling for the handover of power from Al-Assad to his vice president, who would then form a coalition government with the opposition, both that based in Syria and that currently in exile. The offer was rejected by Damascus, however, with the backing of Moscow, Beijing and Tehran.

On Monday, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navy Pillay is expected to address the UN General Assembly on the issue of proposed rescue operations – with the stated aim of helping civilians – both inside Syria and in refugee camps in neighbouring states, including Turkey and Lebanon.

In the meantime, GCC states are paving the way for regime change in Syria as they consider extending formal recognition to the Syrian Transitional Council (STC) as the representative of the Syrian people in a move that would mark the end of official relations with the Assad regime.

Earlier this month, GCC member states withdrew their ambassadors from Syria to protest mounting violence between the regime and an almost year-old armed insurgency.

Proposed recognition of the STC was considered at a meeting of GCC representatives that convened on the sidelines of foreign ministerial meeting on Syria in Cairo on Sunday.

An Arab League source told Ahram Online that there was a “degree of apprehension” on the GCC’s current approach to Syria in view of the confused situation on the ground inside the troubled country and in view of the many unanswered questions that leading Arab capitals – including Cairo – continue to have about who would eventually replace Al-Assad.

The same source said that some states were also concerned that GCC recognition of the STC might prompt Al-Assad to ratchet up the crackdown on the heavily-armed opposition and lead Syria into a civil war.

Arab diplomats taking part at the meeting, however, said the decision to recognise the STC – or maintain contact with the Al-Assad regime – was each state’s sovereign prerogative. Some states, they predicted, would likely recognise the STC while others would maintain ties with Damascus – at least for the time being.

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