Arab observer mission due in Syria but opposition wary

AFP , Thursday 22 Dec 2011

As the international community appears to toughen its stance on Syria, an Arab League mission is set to arrive, while the regime continues to kill civilians

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Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus 19 December, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

Although an Arab League observer mission to Damascus, due to land on Thursday, has been welcomed by Syria, the opposition has been critical and called instead for the issue to be taken to the UN.

Launched in the hopes of ending months of unrest and quelling the regime's violent crackdown on dissent, the mission will see an initial group of 30 to 50 observers, accompanied by administrative and security staff, begin work on Thursday.

But the Arab League mission, which will be led by Samir Seif al-Yazal, assistant to League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi, has been dismissed by Syrian opposition leaders as a mere "ploy" by the Damascus regime.

The Syrian government denies this.

"It is in our interests to see this mission succeed, because its task is to examine the situation on the ground, and it will realise that things are not black or white—they are much more complex," said Jihad Makdisi, the foreign ministry spokesman.

After weeks of stalling, President Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime signed a deal at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Monday to accept observers to monitor a plan to end the bloodshed.

The observer mission is part of an Arab plan endorsed by Syria on 2 November, which also calls for a halt to the violence, releasing detainees and the withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts.

But Damascus managed to obtain key concessions to the initial plan for observers which, Syrian authorities said, was too vague and "did not take sufficient account of the national security" of the country.

Syria posed 18 questions to the Arab League, and in the past 48 hours, the final document was written by well-known Egyptian lawyer Ali al-Ghatit, who is seen as close to both the Syrian regime and Arabi, Makdisi said.

According to the protocol governing the observers, they will number an "amount reasonable to accomplish the mission" and will include "Arab civilian and military experts chosen by Arab countries or organisations."

Their task will consist of "monitoring the cessation of violence on all sides, and to ensure the release of detainees arrested in connection with the current crisis," according to the text of the protocol.

Observers "should be free to communicate with anyone, in coordination with the Syrian government. They must also ensure that armed appearances have disappeared from the cities, and to ensure that the government allows the media to enter the country."

Makdisi said it was "honest and important" that the text of the protocol referred to violence on all sides as well as armed groups, "because it takes into account armed gangs."

The regime also considers it a given that the observers will "submit regular reports on their work to the Syrian government and the Arab League."

In addition, the pan-Arab group will "provide the identity of the observers, the details of their mission, and where they want to go, because Syria is responsible for their safety," Makdisi said.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said he expects the observers to vindicate Damascus's claims that the unrest has been caused by "armed terrorist groups," not peaceful protesters as maintained by Western powers and rights organisations.

The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the regime's crackdown since mid-March.

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said the Arab League needs to show that its observers are "independent and able to work effectively" to dispel "well-founded fears of yet another Syrian stalling tactic."

Muallem has said the observers will be able to access so-called "hot zones" but not sensitive military sites. Human Rights Watch called on Damascus to grant full access.

Syrian opposition groups have criticised the protocol and the observer mission.

"We call on the Arab League to refer the matter of the crisis in Syria to the UN Security Council," said Omar Edelbi, spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which have been driving the protests on the ground.

Edelbi called the observer mission "another attempt by the regime to bypass the Arab initiative and empty it of its contents."

He added that "to deceive observers, soldiers and members of the security services will receive police identification."

The Syrian National Council on Wednesday called for emergency sessions of the UN Security Council and Arab League over "massacres" committed by the security forces.

The umbrella group of opposition factions has reported 250 people killed in the past 48 hours.

Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, sees the observer mission as a sign of hope, however.

"The signing of the protocol is in the interests of the revolution, because if the regime applies all the clauses of the agreement, democracy will be installed in Syria very soon, because the people will descend on the streets en masse."

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