Last Updated: Wed Dec 21, 2011 13:24 pm (KSA) 10:24 am (GMT)

Syria SNC urges U.N. emergency meeting over ‘massacres’ as death toll mounts

Demonstrators protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in al-Midan district in Damascus. (Reuters)
Demonstrators protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in al-Midan district in Damascus. (Reuters)

The opposition Syrian National Council on Wednesday urged the U.N. Security Council and Arab League to hold emergency meetings after “massacres” carried out by regime forces.

Reacting to this week’s reports of the killing of hundreds of civilians, the opposition bloc called for an “emergency U.N. Security Council session to discuss the regime’s massacres in Zawiyah mountain, Idlib, and Homs, in particular.”

A Britain-based rights group said earlier Wednesday that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed 111 civilians in the northwestern province of Idlib on Tuesday, .

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave the revised toll in a statement sent to AFP on Wednesday, a day after reporting the deaths of 37 civilians and at least 100 army deserters in the same province.

Fierce fighting

Fierce fighting has continued in the northern Syrian province of Idlib on Tuesday, shortly before officials arrive to prepare for an Arab League effort to end nine months of bloodshed.

Idlib, on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, has seen fierce fighting recently. The Observatory reported that security forces machine-gunned soldiers deserting their army base there on Monday, killing more than 60, and said rebels had damaged or destroyed 17 military vehicles since Sunday.

The state news agency SANA said security forces killed five “terrorists” in Deraa province on Monday night. It also said Assad had decreed the death penalty for anyone caught distributing arms “with the aim of committing terrorist acts.”

The Gulf Cooperation Council, in its meeting in Riyadh, called on Syria to “immediately halt its killing machine, put an end to bloodshed, lift all signs of armed conflict and release prisoners, as a first step towards implementing the (Arab) protocol” that Damascus agreed to on Monday.

GCC states urged “the Syrian government to implement all points of the Arab initiative and the protocol on sending Arab League observers” to the restive country.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby told Reuters in Cairo that an advance team would go to Syria on Thursday, with the 150 monitors due to arrive by the end of December.

“It’s a completely new mission ... and it depends on implementation in good faith,” he said.

Meanwhile, the EU said that it is ready to offer technical help for the Arab observers in Syria.

An EU official told Al Arabiya that EU offering help depends on how much the Arab League needs it.

Arab protocol

Demonstrators protesting against President Bashar al-Assad gather during a march through the streets in Marat al-Numan near Idlib. (Reuters)

Syria stalled for weeks before signing a protocol on Monday to accept the monitors who will check its compliance with an Arab plan for an end to violence, withdrawal of troops from the streets, release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.

“In a week’s time, from the start of the operation, we will know (if Syria is complying),” al-Araby said.

Arabi’s deputy Ahmed Bin Helli said in Cairo “an advance team (of observers) will head to Damascus on Thursday.”

The team would include security, legal and administrative observers, with human rights experts expected to follow, and be headed by fellow assistant secretary general Samir Seif al-Yazal, AFP reported.

Bin Helli said General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, former head of Sudanese military intelligence and state minister for security arrangements, would head the mission.

Gulf Cooperation Council rulers urged Syria to immediately halt its “killing machine“ and “lift all signs of armed conflict."

Washington also expressed doubt that Syria was genuine in its promise.

“A signature on a piece of paper from a regime like this, that has broken promise after promise after promise, means relatively little to us,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.

She later said “our understanding is that the Arab League wants to begin starting to deploy its monitors by the end of this week in at least 10 locations in Syria and that it expects by the time it's finished with its deployment, which it thinks will be about the middle of January, to have some 300, 400 monitors all over Syria, which would obviously be a very welcome step.”

Independent observers

Demonstrators protesting against President Bashar al-Assad gather during a march through the streets of Kafranbel near Idlb. (Reuters)

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said the Arab League needs to show that its observers are “independent and able to work effectively” to dispel “well-founded fears of yet another Syrian stalling tactic.”

“Violence must immediately end, the military withdraw, political prisoners be released and unhindered humanitarian access be granted,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

Syrian pro-democracy activists are deeply skeptical about Assad’s commitment to the plan, which, if implemented, could embolden demonstrators demanding an end to his 11-year rule.

France denounced Wednesday what it said was the “unprecedented massacre” of 120 people by Syrian forces and urged Russia to accelerate talks for a U.N. Security Council resolution on the crisis.

At his regular briefing, French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said: “Everything must be put in motion to end this murderous spiral into which Bashar al-Assad is dragging his people, deeper each day.”

“A massacre on an unprecedented scale took place in Syria on Tuesday, causing more than 120 deaths,” he said, apparently throwing France’s weight behind reports from Syrian opposition and rights groups of a mass killing.

“We call on Russia to accelerate the rhythm of negotiations at the Security Council on its draft resolution,” he added.

France also said that Assad had a record of broken pledges and that Monday’s violence showed there “isn’t a moment to lose.”

“For months we have seen Bashar al-Assad not keep to commitments he made to his people and he has increased his efforts to play for time in the face of the international community,” Valero said.

In recent months, peaceful protests have increasingly given way to armed confrontations often led by army deserters.

Some opposition leaders have called for foreign military intervention to protect civilians from Assad’s forces.

The Syrian authorities have made it hard for anyone to know what is going on in their troubled country. They have barred most foreign journalists and imposed tight curbs on local ones.

The United Nations has said more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since anti-Assad protests erupted in March, inspired by a wave of uprisings across the Arab world.

Several weeks ago Damascus said 1,100 members of the security forces had been killed by “armed terrorist gangs.” An armed insurrection against Assad has gathered pace since then.

Russian draft resolution

Russia last week presented the U.N. Security Council with its own draft resolution stepping up its criticism of the bloodshed in Syria, although western governments have said the draft remains too weak to win their support.

Nuland said that Clinton and Lavrov agreed to keep working on the Russian draft, saying the United States believed it needed to be further strengthened.

“So we’re on two tracks now: continuing to work on the resolution in New York and then testing to see whether the Syrians are serious about implementing their commitments to the Arab League,” Nuland said.

“We will see what the U.N. Security Council resolution needs to do as this moves forward.”

Syria agreed to the Arab peace plan in early November, but the violence raged on, prompting Arab states to announce financial sanctions and travel bans on Syrian officials.

The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Syria, which combined with the unrest itself have pushed the economy into a sharp decline. The Syrian pound fell nearly 2 percent on Tuesday to more than 55 pounds per dollar, 17 percent down from the official rate before the crisis erupted.

Arab rulers want to halt a slide towards a possible civil war in Syria that could shake a region already riven by rivalry between non-Arab Shiite power Iran and Sunni Arab heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, SANA said the Syrian navy and air force conducted live-fire maneuvers on Tuesday to test their preparedness to repulse “any aggression against the homeland.”

“The air force and air defenses conducted maneuvers with live ammunition... with a view to testing the combat capabilities of the air forces and to test their readiness to respond to any aggression” against the country, it said.

The agency added that naval forces had carried out similar exercises.

At the beginning of December, the military also carried out exercises that one analyst said was a show of force designed to intimidate.

Another said the war games aimed to deter “any (Western) impulse to intervene militarily in Syria by showing that it is prepared to declare a regional war.”

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