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Middle East

Obama: Syria violence unacceptable

U.S. President Obama shakes hands with Jordan's King Abdullah in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington January 17, 2012. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

DAMASCUS/ WASHINGTON: Obama condemned as “unacceptable” Tuesday Syria’s continuing crackdown on protesters and repeated his call for President Bashar Assad’s government to leave power. “We’re continuing to see unacceptable levels of violence inside that country, and so we will continue to consult very closely with Jordan to create the kind of international pressure and environment that encourages the current Syrian regime to step aside,” Obama said after White House talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah.

Meanwhile, Syria said Tuesday it would not object to extending an Arab League mission to monitor its compliance with a peace plan, but ruled out any deployment of Arab troops as proposed by Qatar to halt 10 months of deadly unrest.

It warned that such a move would serve to “worsen the crisis ... and pave the way for foreign intervention,” the foreign ministry said.

“The Syrian people refuse any foreign intervention in any name. They will oppose any attempt to undermine the sovereignty of Syria and the integrity of its territory,” it said in a statement.

“It would be regrettable for Arab blood to flow on Syria’s territory to serve known [interests],” the ministry added, without elaborating.

In an interview with U.S. television aired over the weekend, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, said he favored sending Arab troops to Syria to “stop the killing.”

The Arab League is due to meet on Syria Saturday and Sunday and is expected to discuss the fate of its widely criticized observer mission in the violence-stricken country.

“The outcome of the contacts that have taken place over the past week between the Arab League and Syria have affirmed that Syria will not reject the renewal of the Arab monitoring mission for another month ... if the Arab foreign ministers call for this at the coming meeting,” an Arab source said Tuesday.

Some Arab countries say the monitors need a broader mandate to help stop violence, if the mission is to be continued, but sources said that Syria would reject any expanded mandate and would not permit monitors into “military zones” that are not yet agreed.

From its base in Turkey, the Free Syrian Army has called on the 22-member Arab League to “quickly transfer the case of Syria to the U.N. Security Council,” in a statement signed by its leader Riyadh al-Asaad, a dissident colonel.

The United Nations has pledged to assist the Arab mission deployed in Syria since last month, saying Monday it would start training the bloc’s observers within days.

But the defector force is seeking much bolder action from the world body and urged the international community to “act quickly against the regime through Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter to maintain peace.”

The United Nations Security Council’s robust Chapter 7 provision allows for U.N.-backed forces to initiate military action, rather than merely responding when attacked.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon Monday said “the situation in Syria has reached an unacceptable point,” and urged the Security Council to respond with “seriousness and gravity and in a coherent manner.”

However, tough action by the Security Council has been repeatedly blocked by Damascus allies China and Russia, which vetoed a Western draft United nations resolution in October of 2011 that would have condemned Assad’s regime.

Russia, which has accused the West of eying Libya-style regime change in Damascus, distributed Monday its second draft resolution that blames both sides for the crisis and opposes strong United Nations action, Western diplomats said.

France dismissed the Russian draft Tuesday, saying that it fell “very far from responding to the reality of the situation in Syria.”

Syria’s warning against the deployment of Arab troops comes amid signs of stronger coordination between the military and political opponents of President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The Syrian National Council, a political umbrella group, said it has opened a liaison office and hotline with the FSA to follow developments on the ground.

The FSA claims to have gathered some 40,000 fighters under its command since an anti-regime revolt broke out in Syria in mid-March. The crackdown on dissent has since cost more than 5,000 lives, the U.N. estimates.

A media adviser to a top Syrian army defector, General Mustafa Ahmad al-Sheikh, said last week that a special council is being set up to oversee all military operations.

Meanwhile, reports that Syrian troops fighting rebels in the town of Zabadani near Lebanon had agreed Tuesday to a cease-fire under which the army would withdraw and insurgents would leave the streets, a senior opposition leader in contact with residents said.

Rebels in the town, 30 kilometers from the capital Damascus, have been resisting tank fire and mortar shells for several days.

“Tank bombardment has stopped. Preachers are broadcasting the agreement from the minarets of Zabadani,” Kamal al-Labwani told Reuters.

In more violence Tuesday, at least 14 civilians were killed, including eight who died as a blast hit a minibus in the northwestern province of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

A senior military official in Israel, meanwhile, said his country had serious concerns about what will happen to “huge stockpiles” of chemical and biological weapons if the Assad regime collapsed.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 18, 2012, on page 1.

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