Arab states set to keep monitors in Syria

Reuters , Sunday 22 Jan 2012

Arab FMs meet Sunday to review findings of observer mission to Syria; League expected to extend mission's mandate

 Arab League observers are pictured during a visit to Zabadani
Arab League observers are pictured during a visit to Zabadani, near Damasus, January 21, 2012(Photo:Reuters)

Arab states, divided over how to handle the crisis in Syria, are likely to extend a peace mission to the country that critics say is handing President Bashar Al-Assad more time to kill opponents of his iron-fisted rule.

Some Arab governments want to crank up pressure on Al-Assad to end a ten-month-old crackdown on a popular revolt in which, according to the United Nations, more than 5,000 people have died.

Others worry that weakening Al-Assad could tip Syria, with its potent mix of religious and ethnic allegiances, into a deeper conflict that would destabilise the entire region, and some may fear the threat from their own populations if he were toppled.

Arab foreign ministers were due to meet in Cairo on Sunday to debate the findings of the month-long monitoring mission, whose mandate expired on Thursday, and must decide whether to extend, withdraw or strengthen it.

Maintaining the 165 monitors, and perhaps giving them a broader remit, could give Arab states more time to find their own way out of the crisis and avoid another Libya-style military intervention by foreign powers.

The head of the Arab League, Nabil El-Arabi, met several Arab officials on Saturday and a source close to the league said the ministers could decide both to extend the monitoring mission for another month and to offer it additional support in the form of UN or military experts.

Some of Al-Assad's opponents say they gave up hope of help from Arab governments long ago.

On Saturday, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) formally asked the Arab League to refer the Syrian crisis to the United Nations Security Council.

"We think that when the Arab League refers the case to the United Nations and to the Security Council the situation will change," SNC spokeswoman Basma Al-Kadamny said in Cairo.

Suggestions to send in UN experts to support the Arab observers made little headway at the last meeting earlier this month and Damascus has said that it would accept an extension in the observer mission but not an expansion in its scope.

Syria, keen to avoid tougher foreign action, has tried to show it is complying with the Arab peace plan, which demanded a halt to killings, a military pullout from the streets, the release of detainees, access for the monitors and the media, and a political dialogue with opposition groups.

This month the Syrian authorities have freed hundreds of detainees, announced an amnesty, struck a ceasefire deal with armed rebels in one town, allowed the Arab observers into some trouble spots and admitted some foreign journalists.

Al-Assad also promised political reforms while vowing iron-fisted treatment of the "terrorists" trying to topple him.

SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun told reporters that the observers were not properly equipped to give a fair assessment of Syria's compliance with the Arab peace plan and his group would reject any findings that fell short of the Syrian people's aspirations.

Hundreds of people were killed during the month-long observer mission, despatched to assess Syria's implementation of the Arab plan, which was originally agreed in early November.

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