Sunday, January 8, 2012

BENADOR: What could change if Arab League to increase monitors in Syria?

Photo: Syrians living in Egypt take part in a protest in Cairo on Sunday before a meeting there of Arab League foreign ministers about the league's observer mission in Syria. Credit: Khaled Elfiqi / EPA

REPORTING FROM CAIRO AND BEIRUT — The Arab League is pressing ahead with a heavily criticized observer mission in Syria, saying Sunday it will increase the number of monitors and calling on all sides to halt months of bloodshed.

The announcements came after the head of the observers briefed an Arab League ministerial committee in Cairo on the preliminary findings of the mission, which is monitoring the Damascus government’s compliance with regional demands to end a violent crackdown on a nearly 10-month uprising.

Opposition activists contend that the mission has done little but provide a cover for more violence. Hundreds of people have been killed since Syria agreed Dec. 19 to admit the monitors, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists that organizes protests and documents the bloodshed. At least 21 more deaths were reported Sunday, the group said.

Members of the Syrian National Council, the most prominent opposition bloc, and other activists have urged the league to concede that it can’t protect civilians and to ask the U.N. Security Council to step in. The Arab Parliament, a league advisory body, has also declared the mission a failure and called for the immediate withdrawal of the observers.

In a statement Sunday, the ministerial committee called on the Syrian government to fulfill its commitments under a league-negotiated peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and residential areas, the release of political prisoners, free access to international media and dialogue with the opposition. The league also reiterated its demand for an end to “all acts of violence from any side.”

League officials have said that the Syrian government has taken steps toward implementing the plan, including releasing a number of detainees, but that snipers continue to threaten civilians.

Qatar’s prime minister, Sheik Hamad ibn Jassim Jaber al Thani, who heads the ministerial committee on Syria, said he was hopeful the observers would be able to complete their task. But he told reporters that "this mission won’t last forever. If the killings continue, then the mission’s presence will be useless.”

Syrian authorities insist they are committed to the league’s plan. They blame the continued bloodshed on what they describe as foreign-backed armed terrorists, who they say have killed more than 2,000 security force members.

What began as a mostly peaceful uprising in March has turned more violent in recent months, with military defectors claiming responsibility for deadly attacks against government forces. In all, more than 5,000 people have been killed, according to U.N. estimates.

Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria, making it difficult to verify the accounts provided by either side.

The Qatari prime minister said the league hopes to increase the number of observers in the country from 165 to 300 within the next few days.

League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby will coordinate with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on ways to strengthen the “technical capacity” of the mission, the committee said, including providing training for the monitors.

International human rights groups have expressed concern that the monitors sent to Syria are not experienced at uncovering or documenting abuses.

Some have also questioned the selection of Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Dabi to lead the mission, noting that he served in key security positions under President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands for crimes against humanity in Sudan's Darfur region.

Elaraby has defended Dabi, calling him a “capable military man with a clean reputation.”

Dabi will file a full report on the mission's findings on Jan. 19, the committee said.

[2:55 p.m. Jan. 8: The panel's recommendations did not satisfy activists in some of the country’s major opposition strongholds, which have borne the brunt of the crackdown.

“We don't want new deadlines, additional observers or equipment,” said an activist in the strife-torn city of Homs who goes by the nickname Abu Rami for security sake. “I can hear the gunfire outside. The killings continue. ... We ask [the league] to submit the issue to the [U.N.] Security Council.”

Elaraby said there was nothing to prevent the Security Council from acting. “The Security Council has the authority to intervene in any matter under the sun … without needing us,” he said.


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