BEIRUT/AMMAN/WASHINGTON: Turkey and Jordan, backed by Western and Arab powers, are preparing to set up two “safe zones” for civilians inside Syria, diplomats told The Daily Star Friday, if the Syrian President Bashar Assad failed to meet an extended Arab League deadline to end eight months of bloodshed.
Arab and Western diplomats were meeting to discuss the plan late last night, after the Arab League rejected Syrian-requested amendments to a plan for independent monitors to oversee the implementation of the league’s peace initiative.
The Arab League has suspended Syrian participation in meetings and set a Saturday deadline for it to heed to the Arab peace plan that entails a military pullout from around restive Syrian cities and towns, threatening sanctions unless Assad acts to halt the violence.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby said Friday the organization was studying a letter from Syria which “included amendments to the draft protocol regarding the legal status and duties of the monitoring mission of the Arab League to Syria.”
Damascus wants to exclude human rights activists from the mission and limit the participation to civilian Arab government employees, diplomats told The Daily Star.
The Western and Arab diplomats told The Daily Star that Syria’s two neighbors would press ahead with preparations to establish the two havens if President Bashar Assad did not sign on to the Arab plan by Saturday.
An international meeting in Paris Friday was discussing the details of the plans to set up safe zones in northern and southern Syria.
The meeting was attended by representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt, and Jordan.
On top of the agenda is agreeing for NATO member Turkey to establish a safe haven in northern Syria and for U.S.-ally Jordan to set up a similar zone in southern Syria.
The diplomats said with Russia and China continuing to support Assad, it was impossible to get a U.N. Security Council resolution that would impose measures to protect civilians in Syria.
In the absence of the possibility of Security Council action, Friday’s meeting in Paris was the best way to provide an international umbrella for these measures, one diplomat said. The Arab League is also expected to propose economic sanctions on Damascus next week, he said. He did not elaborate on how the safe havens would be enforced.
Damascus and its allies have warned that any military intervention in Syria could lead to chaos in the Middle East.
Syrian forces have been planting mines along the Jordan border this week in what appears to be in anticipation for such a move, the diplomats said. The Syrian forces had mined parts of the border with Lebanon a few weeks ago.
Earlier Friday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he doubted Syria would respond positively to the Arab League initiative. But he said any international intervention must not be unilateral and should be mandated by the United Nations. Juppe, speaking alongside Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, said France was ready to work with the Syrian opposition and that tougher sanctions were needed on Damascus.
But, at the end of a week in which army deserters attacked an intelligence building near Damascus and waged a deadly battle with Assad’s forces he appeared to call on the opposition not to use army defectors to mount attacks.
“We are making a call to the Syrian opposition. To avoid a civil war, we hope that the army will not be mobilized. This would be a catastrophe,” Juppe said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Friday of the possibility of a civil war in Syria that either is directed or influenced by Syrian army defectors.
“I think there could be a civil war with a very determined and well-armed and eventually well-financed opposition that is, if not directed by, certainly influenced by defectors from the army,” Clinton told the U.S. network NBC.
Syria says it is trying to implement the deal but has called on neighboring countries to do more to stem a flow of arms to the opposition and end what it says is a media campaign of incitement against Syrian authorities.
Activists said security forces killed at least 16 people Friday after weekly prayers in the cities of Deraa, Homs, Hama and the Damascus suburb of Erbin.
Syria’s state news agency said two members of the security forces were killed and a third was seriously wounded when a bomb exploded in the province of Hama. Two others were wounded by gunfire in Deraa, it said.
Syria has barred most independent journalists from the country, making it difficult to verify reports from activists or officials. Authorities blame the violence on foreign-backed armed groups.
Protesters called on foreign countries to expel Syrian ambassadors in a gesture of support for the opposition.
“Whoever fears God should expel the Syrian ambassador” read a banner at a demonstration in the southern province of Deraa.
In Homs and Hama, protesters dancing arm in arm chanted “The Free Army is our army,” referring to army deserters who have waged an escalating campaign of attacks on state targets.
Opposition sources said Wednesday the Free Syrian Army had killed or wounded 20 security police in an assault on an Air Force Intelligence complex on the outskirts of Damascus, the first of its kind in the revolt against Assad.
France, Britain and Germany plan to ask the U.N. General Assembly’s human rights committee to approve a resolution condemning the violence in Syria, before putting the non-binding measure to a vote in an Assembly plenary session.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Friday for a cautious response from the international community.
“We are ready to work with the international community but we call for restraint and caution,” Putin told reporters, when asked whether Russia will support calls for Assad to resign or back a U.N. resolution condemning his actions.
Meeting with his French counterpart Francois Fillon in Moscow, Putin chided France for meddling in the affairs of other nations and reiterated Moscow’s warning against military intervention.
Fillon said that faced with an increasingly “dramatic” situation in Syria, France was “more than ever determined to take action” against a president “who has lost all legitimacy in our eyes by firing on his own people.”