Syria Rejects Arab League Plan for Government Overhaul, UN Unable to Track Mounting Death Toll
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On Sunday, January 22, the Arab League put forth a surprising new peace plan which called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power, and for the Syrian government to move forward with negotiating with the opposition, establishing a transitional government, and eventually holding national elections. Damascus immediately shot down the new plan, terming it “blatant interference in its internal affairs”. Nevertheless, the government approved a one-month extension of the League’s observer mission, which is now set to conclude on February 22. The UN also announced today that fragmented conditions on the ground have caused it to lose track of the death toll from the revolution, another troubling outcome of the country’s ongoing crisis.
The Syrian Revolution
Protests, security crack downs, clashes
On Friday, January 20, international media reported that an estimated six people were killed in gunfire in a number of locations around the country.
The following day, activists reported clashes between Syrian armed forces and members of the opposition in the Damascus suburb of Douma. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the opposition’s Free Syrian Army gained control over the area – a charge that remains in dispute.
Reports also allege that an estimated 59 people were killed or found dead across the country on Saturday, with the worst of the figures reported when a bus carrying prisoners in Idlib drove over a series of roadside bombs, as well as after clashes in Karf Nabl in the Zawiya Mountains, Khirbeit al-Juz, Maaret al-Numan, and Douma.
On January 24, Local Coordination Committees reported that military forces had launched an aggressive crackdown in the restive city of Hama, where members of the opposition are said to control a number of city districts.
On Wednesday, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent based in the northern town of Idlib, Abdulrazak Jbero, was shot and killed in what the Syrian government termed an attack by terrorists.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another seven people were killed that day in the Bab Qabli district of Hama as well as in Qusair, not far from the country’s border with Lebanon. A woman and a five-year-old child were killed amid shelling in the latter. Clashes between military forces and army defectors were also reported in Idlib.
On Thursday, Syrian military forces reportedly carried out home raids and vehicle searches in Douma following several days of retreat from the area. Douma is about 16 kilometers outside of central Damascus, and has been the site of heavy opposition activity since the start of the revolution nearly 11 months ago.
Meanwhile, the UN announced today, January 26, that it is no longer able to keep track of the growing death toll from Syria’s unrest. According to UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay, the UN is “experiencing difficulties” accounting for the deaths “because of the fragmentation on the ground”.
The last statistics released by the UN on January 10 indicated that an estimated 400 people had died amid violence in the country since the arrival of the Arab League’s monitoring mission on December 26. Since then, no clear numbers have been released.
International Politics & Diplomacy
Syria rejects Arab League calls for Syrian president to step down, Gulf states pull out of troubled observer mission
On Sunday, January 22 during a meeting in Cairo, Egypt to discuss whether to extend the mandate of its monitoring force in Syria, the Arab League issued a new peace proposal for Syria based in part on the findings of the League’s month-long monitoring mission in the country. The new plan called upon Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer power to a deputy. It also called upon the government to begin negotiations with the opposition within two weeks, form of a transitional government, and later hold national democratic elections. (The full text of the peace plan is not yet publicly available, nor is the official report of the League’s monitoring mission.)
In a statement to the media in Cairo that day, Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, said of the League’s proposal, “We ask that the Syrian regime leave and hand over power…We are with the Syrian people, with their will and with their aspirations.”
The same day, in response to Syria’s apparent failure to implement the League’s earlier peace plan which called for, among much else, an end to violence and the complete withdrawal of military forces from urban areas, Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, said that Saudi Arabia would withdraw its observers from the League’s monitoring mission because the “Syrian government did not implement the Arab plan”.
On Monday, the Syrian government shot down the League’s proposal, terming it “blatant interference in its internal affairs and a flagrant violation of the objectives for which the AL was established and a breach of Article VIII of its Charter“. According to SANA, an unnamed Syrian official said that, “Syria condemns this [Arab League] decision, which came in the framework of the conspiratorial scheme carried out against Syria, a scheme which has been revealed to our people and the Arab world.”
At a press conference in Damascus the following day, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, said of the Arab League’s new peace plan, “They [Arab League officials] replaced the report of the observer mission with a political report that violates the sovereignty of Syria, and they know that we will not accept that…Syria has fulfilled what it has adhered to with regard to the Arab Work Plan and the protocol, and this is what the report of the observers has proven, therefore, they bypassed it…We say to them Syria is a mountain that can’t be affected by the wind.”
“The solution in Syria is not that which had been issued by the Arab League and which we categorically rejected…The solution is Syrian as it emerges from the interests of the Syrian people and it is based on implementing the comprehensive reform program announced by President Bashar al-Assad and on the national dialogue which Syria has called for as President al-Assad had announced that he is ready to start the dialogue since tomorrow,” Moallem said.
“Since the observer mission came to Syria, the number of the army and law-enforcement martyrs has doubled three folds as the armed groups exploited the existence of the mission…The Syrian Government should accelerate finding decisive solutions to the issues to preserve the safety of the citizens and the stability of Syria,” he continued.
Nevertheless the same day, the Syrian government approved a one-month extension of the Arab League’s observer mission in Syria, which is now set to complete on February 22, 2012.
On Wednesday, 50 of the 165-member Arab League monitoring mission left Syria in response to what their respective governments termed the reality that “the bloodshed and killing of innocents would continue”.
The 50 members who left were all from Gulf states, which have collectively become harsh critics of Damascus’s handling of the unrest.
US State Department reluctant to close US Embassy in Damascus, supportive of Arab League calls for President Assad to step aside
At a US State Department press briefing on January 23, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland covered an number of issues with regard to the situation in Syria at length.
On the issue of the Arab League’s call over the weekend for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, Nuland said the move “was really quite remarkable”. Nuland continued: “…the Arab League has now joined the United States, the European Union, other countries around the world in saying that it is now time for Assad to step aside and allow a peaceful political transition to go forward. They made a concrete proposal, in line with the leadership that they’ve been showing on the Syria issue for many weeks now, about how this could happen. Regrettably, Assad rejected it almost before the ink was dry. And this just speaks, again, to the fact that he’s thinking about himself and his cronies, not about his people.”
Regarding the possible closure of the US Embassy in Damascus, Nuland indicated that the US is still awaiting a response from Damascus regarding the security of the embassy and that of US officials in-country. Nuland stated that the US does not want to close the Embassy, as the State Department has “worked hard over many months to be able to keep the Embassy open, to persuade the Congress of the good work that Ambassador Ford and his team were doing, to have Robert Ford confirmed with the advice and consent of the Senate.” She continued, “We do believe that his contacts with a broad cross-section of Syrians are very helpful to our understanding of the situation and very helpful in conveying the American Government, the American people’s support for democratic change in Syria.”
Two days later at another press briefing, Nuland addressed the issue of Russian allegations of the use of violence by members of the Syrian opposition.
“We’ve made clear from the very beginning that we don’t support violence by any side, and we also don’t want to see this conflict further militarized. That said, the vast majority of violent incidents in Syria, in our analysis – an analysis that we have shared with the Russian Federation and will continue to share and that the Arab League now appears to share – have been committed at the hands of the Assad regime. And the degree to which people are taking up arms to defend themselves, while we don’t support that, it’s a natural reaction to the fact that they are under physical violent threat. So we continue to believe that it is Assad whom – and his regime who must end the violence, or step aside, or both,” Nuland said.
Tougher Syria sanctions sought by US senators
This week two US senators, Charles Schumer (Dem) and Kirsten Gillibrand (Dem) of New York, are set to propose a new US sanctions measure, that would require the US president to identify Syrian individuals who violate human rights, call for both the protection of protestors and for government reform in Syria, block any property transactions based in the US and connected to Syrian officials involved in the current crackdown against the opposition, and prohibit the sale of telecommunications and technology to Syria if such technology could be used by the Syrian government to monitor, censor, and control the opposition.
“Assad has brutally violated the human rights of his own people while killing thousands of Syrian citizens and fostering terrorism across his borders,” Gillibrand said to The Associated Press. “This new bill is an important step to end the bloodshed by the Syrian government and provide the Syrian people with tools needed to take back their own country,” she continued.
“If Syria won’t willingly change its brutal approach and continues to violate the human rights of those seeking to exercise their voices, then we will do everything we can to send the strongest message possible to that nation’s leadership that this behavior is beyond the pale and not without consequence,” Schumer said.
US President – Syrian government to “discover…forces of change cannot be reversed”
On January 24, US President Barack Obama gave his State of the Union address and made the following remarks on the situation in Syria: “As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana’a to Tripoli. A year ago, Qaddafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators -– a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone. And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied.”
Russia says Syrian government has not responded to peace efforts
During a phone interview with Bloomberg on January 24, Kremlin envoy, Mikhail Margelov, expressed apparent growing frustration in Russia with the crisis in Syria. Margelov said that Moscow’s confidence in a negotiated solution to the country’s worsening security situation is slipping, “because we don’t see any willingness, either from the authorities or the protesters, to reach an agreement”.
Russia has apparently also expressed willingness to mediate negotiations between the Syrian government and members of the opposition, but according to Margelov, it has not yet received a “clear, positive response” from President Assad.
Economic Development & Trade
Government introduces managed float of currency
On Friday, January 20, Syria’s Central Bank Governor Adib Mayaleh announced that the government was set to introduce a managed float of the national currency, beginning this week. The move is intended to let the Syrian pound devalue after growing demand for foreign currency resulted in a surge in black market rates.
“We will have a partial managed float, allow the rate to be determined by the market and intervene when necessary. If we see a rate, like that of 70 pounds now, which I don’t like, then we will intervene, and next week there will be a positive intervention by the central bank with the injection of foreign currency into the market,” Mayaleh said during an interview with Bloomberg.
This week, the Syrian pound has been traded at as much as 71 pounds per dollar in the black market.
EU publishes new sanctions against 30 Syrian individuals, entities
On Tuesday, January 24, the EU officially published a new round of sanctions against Syria, this time adding some 30 entities and officials to its sanctions list.
Of the 22 new Syrian individuals under sanctions, 15 are linked to the military, five to intelligence and security branches of the government, and one, Mehran Khwanda, to a transport company known to offer logistical support to the Syrian government for the purposes of cracking down against the opposition.
Eight companies are newly under sanctions, included several state-owned banks and three energy companies: Dijla Petroleum Co., Ebla Petroleum Co., and the Deir-ez-Zur Petroleum Co.
Russia signs contract to sell combat jets to Syria
On Monday, January 23 in an apparent show of support for Damascus, Russia reportedly signed a contract to sell combat jets to the Syrian government. Citing sources linked to Russia’s Rosoboronexport state-owned arms trader, the business news daily, Kommersant, stated that the $550-million deal covers the delivery of 36 Yak-130 aircraft. Twin-engined combat trainer jet Yak-130s can be used to wage ground attacks.
Unsurprisingly, Russia’s move came under harsh criticism by a number of foreign governments. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted last week, however, that the Russian government does not need to explain or offer excuses for the legal sale of weapons and armaments to Damascus.
Further Reading & Viewing
On international intervention, the opposition inside Syria, and narratives on the revolution:
“Dictatorship, Military Intervention and False Binaries in Syria” – Al Jazeera – Bassam Haddad argues that as the “Syrian situation is more than just the Syrian situation,” all international calls for the fall of the current government should be understood as reflections of the strategic interests of their proclaimers.
“Syria Snapshot II: A Homecoming Trip to Salamiyah” – Al Akhbar – Nebras Dalloul covers interviews with members of the Syrian opposition in Salamiyah during a visit to Syria last month.
“Arab Regime Change is Best Left to Arabs” – The Guardian – Rami Khouri covers the Arab League’s “perplexing” call for President Assad to step aside and the issue of foreign military intervention in the country.
“Collectively Failing Syrian Society” – Foreign Policy – Peter Harling dissects narratives of the Syrian revolution espoused by the Syrian government and its supporters, members of the opposition, and the international media, noting that all sides have fundamentally failed the Syrian people.
“Syrian Kurd Leader: Revolution Won’t Succeed Without Minorities” – The Atlantic – Michael Weiss interviews Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar, Secretary-General of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria and Chairman of the Kurdish National Council on the role of Syrian Kurds in the revolution, his party’s conditions for joining forces with the Syrian National Council, issues of sectarianism, and the protection of cultural and ethnic rights in a future Syria.
“Syrian Kurds and Turkey” – Today’s Zaman – Abdullah Bozkurt covers growing allegations that the Syrian government is supplying members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with munitions and weapons in an effort to punish Turkey not only for condemning the actions of the Syrian government, but for hosting members of the Syrian opposition. Bozkurt also details the manner in which Turkey has attempted to use the Kurdish issue in Syria and the region more broadly, to its advantage in the current crisis.
On the Arab League’s role in Syria:
“Arab League Gets New Sense of Purpose With Syria Pressure: View” – Bloomberg – Bloomberg‘s editorial board weighs in on Syria’s rejection of the Arab League’s peace plan, asserting that it is heartening “that the league, long a cozy club for dictators, has found a new sense of purpose”.
“Gareth Evans on Syria Peace Plan” – ABC – Foreign Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans, discusses the divide within the Arab League on the issue of how to respond to the crisis in Syria, the failings of the observer mission, and prospects for a UN Security Council resolution on Syria.
On Russian support for the Syrian government:
“Several Motives in Stiff Russia Support for Syria, Observers Say” – Los Angeles Times – Sergei L. Loiko reports on Russia’s continued support for the Syrian government, asserting that its “increasingly vigorous support of Syria’s beleaguered government cannot solely be explained as an earnest desire to help its longtime partner and biggest importer of conventional weapons”. Instead, it “reflects a politically inspired eagerness to confront the West as well as the Kremlin’s fear of the fast-growing internal opposition movement”.
On foreign media:
“Colleagues Blame Syria for Death of French TV Reporter Gilles Jacquier” – The Associated Press – Accounts by the two Swiss journalists traveling with French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, who was killed in a grenade attack in Syria several weeks ago, of the events surrounding Jacquier’s death. The journalists charge that the Syrian government planned the attack.
On the economic impact of Syria’s security crisis on neighboring Turkey:
“Turkish City Counts Cost of Syrian Violence” – Reuters – Daren Butler covers the economic impact of the massive drop in cross-border traffic between Syria and Turkey, noting that while an average of 60,000 Syrians used to cross into Turkey every month, that number has now dropped to around 1,000.
References made to articles, individuals, organizations or government bodies in this blog do not necessarily reflect or imply an endorsement by The Syria Report. The Syria News Blog is a news service offered by The Syria Report only for the purpose of recapping foreign reportage on matters pertaining to Syria.