France Recalls Syria Envoy

November 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – France recalled its ambassador to Damascus and Syria’s suspension from the Arab League took effect on Wednesday, intensifying diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to halt a violent eight-month-old crackdown on protests.

Syrian army defectors attacked an intelligence complex on the edge of Damascus in a high-profile assault that showed how close the popular uprising is to sliding into armed conflict.

Hours after the Arab League suspension took effect, Assad supporters threw stones and debris at the embassy of the United Arab Emirates and smeared its walls with graffiti, witnesses said. The embassy is in one of the most secure districts of the capital, near Assad’s home and offices.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France was working with the Arab League on a draft resolution at the United Nations.

Last month Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Damascus, but since then the normally cautious Arab League has suspended Syria for failing to implement an Arab peace plan.

“New violence is taking place and that has led to the closure of the missions in Aleppo and Latakia and to recall our ambassador to Paris,” Juppe said, referring to weekend attacks by pro-Assad demonstrators on French diplomatic premises, as well as Turkish and Saudi missions, in Syria.

Arab foreign ministers met in Rabat for an Arab-Turkish forum, where a Syrian flag was placed by an empty chair.

Turkey, now a fierce critic of its former ally, said Syria had failed to honor an Arab peace plan to halt the unrest.

Speaking through a translator, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu compared Syria with Libya, where rebels captured, humiliated and killed Muammar Gaddafi last month.

“The regime should meet the demands of its people,” he said. “The collective massacres in Syria and … the bloodshed cannot continue like this.”

IRAN DEFENDS SYRIA

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi criticized the Arab League for “acting in a way that will hurt the security of the region.” He told the official news agency IRNA that Syria, an ally of Iran since 1980, had repeatedly pledged to meet legitimate popular demands and enact reforms.

“Unfortunately, some countries believe that they are outside the crisis … but they are mistaken because if a crisis happens they will be entangled by its consequences.”

Saudi Arabia, which is eager to loosen the ties between its regional rival Iran and Syria, said the Arab League was acting in Syria’s interest, not interfering in its affairs.

“What’s important is not about suspending or not suspending (Syria from the League), it’s stopping the bloodshed, starting the dialogue, and withdrawing troops from Syrian cities,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told Al Arabiya channel.

Western countries have tightened sanctions on Syria and on Monday Jordan’s King Abdullah became the first Arab head of state to urge Assad to quit after ensuring a smooth handover.

In the early months of the uprising, attempts by security forces to crush mainly peaceful protests accounted for most of the violence. But since August there has been a growing number of reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting back.

Activists said Free Syrian Army fighters fired machineguns and rockets at a large Air Force Intelligence complex on the northern edge of the capital at about 7:30 p.m. EST.

A gunfight ensued and helicopters circled over the complex, on the Damascus-Aleppo highway. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Syrian state media did not mention the attack.

The U.S. State Department said it had few details and no direct confirmation of the incident, but blamed Assad’s crackdown on protesters.

“It’s not surprising that we are now seeing this kind of violence,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “We don’t condone it in any way, shape or form. But let’s be very clear that it is the brutal tactics of Assad and his regime in dealing with what began as a non-violent movement is now taking Syria down a very dangerous path.”

“HUGELY SYMBOLIC”

A Western diplomat in Damascus described the assault as “hugely symbolic and tactically new,” saying that if the reported details were true it would be “much much more coordinated than anything we have seen before.”

“To actually attack a base like this is something else, and so close to Damascus as well,” said the diplomat, adding that fighting in recent weeks involving army deserters in the town of Rastan and the city of Homs resembled a localized civil war.

“It’s not a nationwide civil war, but in very specific locations, it is looking like that,” said the diplomat.

The Free Syrian Army was set up by deserters and is led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who is based in southern Turkey.

It announced this week that it had formed a “temporary military council” of nine defecting officers, led by Asaad.

The statement said the Syrian Free Army aimed to “bring down the regime and protect citizens from the repression … and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls,” adding that it would form a military court to try “members of the regime who are proven to have been involved in killing operations.”

Syrian television showed thousands of Assad’s supporters rallying in Damascus and Latakia to mark the day his father Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970. It said the crowds were also voicing their rejection of the Arab League’s decision.

“God, Syria, Bashar, that’s all!” demonstrators shouted in central Damascus after turning out in heavy rain to wave flags and posters of the president. Two large posters of Assad and his father hung from a building. “Neither rain nor sanctions will stop us expressing our nationalism,” they said, according to the television report.

The Arab League has stopped short of calling for Assad’s departure or proposing any Libya-style military intervention, but its ostracism of Syria is a blow to a country whose ruling Baath party puts Arab nationalism at the center of its credo.

Syrian authorities have banned most independent media. They blame the unrest on “armed terrorist gangs” and foreign-backed militants who they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.
Hundreds of people have been killed this month, one of the bloodiest periods of the revolt.

Syria says it remains committed to the Arab peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of troops from urban areas, the release of prisoners and a dialogue with the opposition.

State media said more than 1,000 prisoners, including prominent dissident Kamal Labwani, were freed on Tuesday. But human rights campaigners say tens of thousands have been detained since anti-Assad protests began.

13-47

Assad Meets Arab ministers; 20 Killed in Clashes

October 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 20 people died in clashes and strikes paralyzed parts of Syria, as President Bashar al-Assad met Arab ministers seeking to end months of violence and authorities held a mass rally to show support for him.

The official state news agency quoted the head of the Arab League delegation, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, as saying the talks on Wednesday were “cordial and frank” and that the ministers would meet Syrian officials again on October 30.

In the central city of Homs, a hotbed of opposition to Assad, people held a general strike to protest against his crackdown on seven months of unrest, in which the United Nations says 3,000 people have been killed.

Residents and activists said most employees stayed at home and shops were closed in the city of one million. One resident said armed opponents of Assad enforced the strike. Army gunfire, which killed 11 people across Syria on Wednesday, also kept people off the streets.

Residents and activists said most employees stayed at home and shops were closed in the city of one million. One resident said insurgents enforced the strike. Army gunfire, which killed 11 people across Syria on Wednesday, also kept people off the streets.

In the town of Hamrat, north of Homs, suspected army deserters killed nine soldiers in an attack on a bus with a rocket-propelled grenade, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It was the latest incident in an armed insurgency emerging alongside the campaign of street protests.

Assad faces international pressure over his crackdown, with the United States and the European Union slapping sanctions on Syrian oil exports and businesses, helping drive the economy into recession.

“This will end with the fall of the regime. It is nearly unavoidable,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Wednesday.

“But unfortunately it could take time because the situation is complex, because there is a risk of civil war between Syrian factions, because surrounding Arab countries do not want us to intervene,” he told French radio.

ARAB MISSION

In Umayyad Square in central Damascus, tens of thousands of people gathered for what has become a weekly show of support for Assad organized by authorities.

State television showed them waving Syrian flags and portraits of the president, saying they were rallying under the slogan “Long live the homeland and its leader.”

The rally took place before the envoys from six Arab nations arrived in Damascus for talks with Assad following their call on October 16 for the opposition and government to hold a dialogue within 15 days at the League headquarters in Cairo.

“What is hoped is that the violence will end, a dialogue will start and reforms will be achieved,” Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said of the delegation, which is led by Qatar and also includes Egypt, Algeria, Oman, Sudan and Yemen.

13-44

Syrians Flee Town as Troops Approach

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

 
 

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrians fled a restive town toward the Turkish border, fearing bloodshed as troops with tanks approached, under orders to hit back after the government accused armed bands there of killing scores of its security men.

Though accounts of days of killing in Jisr al-Shughour ranged from an official version of gunmen ambushing troops to residents’ reports of an army mutiny, it triggered international alarm that violence may enter a new and bloodier phase after three months of popular unrest that has left over 1,000 dead.

France and Britain, allies in the war against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, took a lead in pushing U.N. moves against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Russia, citing NATO’s inconclusive bombing of Tripoli, said it would veto intervention against Syria in the United Nations Security Council.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, at U.N. headquarters in New York, said it was “a question of days, maybe hours” before the Council voted on a resolution condemning Syria. A draft circulated last month does not propose military intervention.

At Jisr al-Shughour, home to tens of thousands of people, residents said they were taking cover and bracing for attacks.

“The army is taking up position around Jisr al-Shughour,” one anti-government activist told Reuters by telephone, saying residents have seen troops approaching the northeastern town from Aleppo, Syria’s second city, and from Latakia on the coast.

“Most people have left the town because they are scared,” he said, asking not to be named for his own safety. “They know the deaths will be high. People have gone to nearby villages close to the Turkish border. The doctors and nurses have also left.”

On Monday, Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said army units would carry out their “national duty to restore security.”

The government has expelled independent journalists, making it hard to determine clearly what is happening in the country.

Despite enthusiasm for pro-democracy movements that have unseated dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, few Western leaders — let alone their autocratic Arab partners — have shown a will to intervene in Syria, an Iranian ally whose volatile mix of ethnic and religious groups sits astride a web of regional conflicts.

Foreign Pressure

Assad’s family and supporters from the minority Alawite sect have dominated Syria since his late father seized power 41 years ago. He has responded with promises of reform, and a crackdown on protesters in towns across the country. His officials accuse radical Islamists of fomenting a violent, armed revolt.

Neighboring countries, including Israel and Turkey, worry that a collapse into chaos could set off sectarian conflict and the emergence of violent, radical Islamists, as happened in Neighboring Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003.

But Western powers kept up pressure. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, in some of London’s strongest language yet against the 45-year-old leader, told parliament: “President Assad is losing legitimacy and should reform or step aside.” He said European governments were looking at further sanctions.

“We are working to persuade other countries that the Security Council has a responsibility to speak out,” Hague added. Russia appears opposed to a general condemnation of Assad, let alone authorising military action against him.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who last month urged Assad to lead a transition to democracy or “get out of the way,” did not mention Syria in remarks at a news briefing on Tuesday.

But in Brussels, Russia’s envoy to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, said: “The prospect of a U.N. Security Council resolution that’s along the same lines as Resolution 1973 on Libya will not be supported by my country … The use of force, as Libya shows, does not provide answers.”

Veto-holding Russia abstained on the Libya vote, allowing NATO to begin a bombing campaign that Western powers say saved civilians in rebel-held Benghazi from an onslaught by Gaddafi’s forces, but which has failed to dislodge the Libyan leader.

Syria’s ambassador to France strongly denied a report on Tuesday that she had resigned in protest at the government’s repression of protests, saying it was part of a campaign of disinformation against Damascus.

Lamia Chakkour, shown standing in front of a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Paris embassy, told France’s BFM television that a report by news channel France 24, featuring a telephone interview with a woman claiming to be her, was false.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Michael Roddy)

13-25