Hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets on Friday to protest against President Bashar al-Assad, activists said, a day after Syria’s big power ally Russia sharpened its criticism of Damascus in a draft United Nations resolution.
As many as 22 people were killed by the gunfire of Syrian security forces during the rallies which protesters called “The Arab League is killing us,” Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists.
Friday’s killings took place, activists said, after midday prayers in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour and in Homs, hotbed of opposition to four decades of repressive Assad family rule, according to Reuters.
Organizers urged demonstrators to vent their frustration at the Arab League after the bloc postponed an emergency foreign ministers’ meeting that had been set for Saturday to give more time for Damascus to agree to a deal to end the bloodshed to avoid sanctions. The uprising against Bashar al-Assad has entered its nine month.
Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem will head to the Qatari capital Doha to sign the Arab initiative regarding Syria, according to Al Arabiya sources.
Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara, meanwhile, is to hold talks with Russian officials in Moscow in a bid to defuse the crisis in his country, Russian news agencies quoted a Kremlin source as saying.
“He is to be received in Moscow for a serious conversation,” said the source, who was not identified. “This is our contribution to a solution to the crisis, which of course is worrying us,” it added according to AFP.
Arab League is killing us
Organizers called for a large turnout at the main weekly demonstrations after noon prayers, ahead of a shutdown of shops and businesses called for Saturday.
The bloc approved a package of sanctions against Damascus on November 27 after it failed to meet a deadline to agree to an observer mission to monitor implementation of an Arab plan to protect Syrian civilians.
But on Sunday, Muallem wrote to the Arab League saying that Syria would accept the monitors under certain conditions, including the lifting of the sanctions.
The bloc’s number two Ahmed Ben Helli said late Thursday that the planned foreign ministers’ meeting had been postponed indefinitely while talks continued with Damascus on its offer.
Also Thursday the Arab League held new talks with the Syrian opposition on the eve of the opening in Tunisia of a three-day congress of the Syrian National Council.
SNC leader Burhan Ghaliun said it was vital that the opposition close ranks after the formation in Istanbul on Thursday of a rival National Alliance.
“We need to unite the opposition and make it stronger. We need to emerge from this congress with a higher level of organization, clearer targets and more momentum,” Ghaliun told AFP.
The SNC is generally regarded as the main civilian opposition coalition and includes the local committees running protests in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood as well as parties representing the Kurdish and Assyrian minorities.
However, announcing the formation of the National Alliance, Mohammed Bessam Imadi, a former Syrian ambassador to Sweden, charged that the SNC had “lost contact with local revolutionary movements in Syria.”
The Syrian opposition has been pushing hard for the U.N. Security Council to take tough action against Damascus after a European draft that would have threatened “targeted measures” against regime figures was blocked by Beijing and Moscow in October.
Russian draft resoluition
Western governments which have been pushing for tough measures against the Assad regime to punish its deadly crackdown gave a guarded welcome to Moscow's surprise drafting of a new, stronger-worded U.N. Security Council text.
The new text circulated by Russia late on Thursday still makes no mention of sanctions but strongly condemns the violence by “all parties, including disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities,” according to a copy obtained by AFP.
In line with Moscow’s insistence that its ally has been facing an armed rebellion not the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations cited by the West, the draft also raises concern over “the illegal supply of weapons to the armed groups in Syria.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed renewed criticism of that position but said the United States hoped it could work with Russia on the text.
“There are some issues in it that we would not be able to support. There’s unfortunately a seeming parity between the government and peaceful protesters,” she said.
“But we are going to study the draft carefully.”
Analysts suggested that the Russian move was more a change of tactics than of policy towards its Cold War ally.
“Russia’s position on Syria − that there is no need to topple Assad as without him things would be even worse − has not changed,” said Alexei Malashenko, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
“The resolution has been put forward to show goodwill. The West's positive reaction to the draft is diplomatic more than anything.”