Syria responds ‘positively’ to Arab League deal as it holds war games in show of force


Syria has responded “positively” to a proposed Arab League plan aimed at ending eight months of violence and expects the agreement to be signed soon, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Makdesi said on Monday.

“The protocol is intended to be signed soon,” Makdesi told journalists in Damascus, according to Reuters.

Syria was given a Sunday deadline by the Arab League to agree to allow observers to monitor the situation on the ground in Syria, where security forces have brutally suppressed a popular revolt in a crackdown that has seen 4,000 people killed since mid-March.

“The road has been cleared for the signing” of the Arab plan, he added.

The deployment of an observer mission is part of the League’s proposal to end the violence in Syria.

A show of force

Syria’s state-run media said earlier that the country’s military has held war games during which the army test-fired missiles and the air force and ground troops conducted operations “similar to a real battle.”

State TV said Monday the exercise was meant to test “the capabilities and readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression.” It said the war games were held on Sunday.

In October, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned the Middle East “will burn” if the West intervenes in Syria, according to The Associated Press.

Syria is known to have surface-to-surface missiles such as Scuds capable of hitting deep inside its archenemy Israel.

The maneuvers came as Syria said it was still negotiating with the Arab League over the bloc’s request to send observers into the country. Tightening sanctions by Arab and other nations have failed to halt the crackdown on anti-government protesters.

State TV said the exercise was meant to test “the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression.”

The drill showed Syrian missiles and troops were “ready to defend the nation and deter anyone who dares to endanger its security” and that the missiles hit their test targets with precision, the TV said.

Although the U.S. and the European Union imposed waves of sanctions against Syria in the past months, Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil as they did in Libya.

State-run news agency SANA quoted Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha as telling the forces that participated in the maneuvers “to be in full readiness to carry out any orders give to them.”

More defections, more crackdown

At least a dozen Syrian secret police have defected from an intelligence compound, activists said, in what appeared to be the first major desertion from a service that has acted as a pillar of President Assad’s rule.

A gunfight broke out overnight on Saturday after the defectors fled the Airforce Intelligence complex in the center of Idlib city, 280 km (175 miles) northwest of Damascus.

Ten people on both sides were killed or wounded, the activists said on Sunday, according to Reuters.

The defections came as the Arab League once again chided Syria for failing to sign up to a league-backed plan to end the violence in Syrian cities.

“We are very clear after the meeting yesterday ... We give the Syrians one day, and I hope we will receive the answer from them. But until now I think there has been no answer from Syria,” the diplomat said.

The Arab League had told Syrian authorities to sign an initiative to end the military crackdown on popular protests by Sunday, threatening to impose financial and economic sanctions if it does not sign soon.

Assad has so far shown no sign of halting the crackdown on protests against his rule.

In Homs’s Sunni district of Bab Amro on Sunday, several thousand people encircled the coffin of Khaled al-Sheikh, a 19-year-old protester who residents said was killed in random shooting by the army on the neighborhood this week.

Abdul Bassel Sarout, a 21-year-old soccer player, kissed Sheikh’s bloody head as the mostly young crowd of men and women chanted to the beat of drums: “Sleep easy we will continue the struggle... mothers weep for Syria's youth.”

“When we film the protests to send on YouTube, most demonstrators would try to hide their face so they would not be identified by the security police,” Wael, a young activist, said. “Khaled was always barefaced, chanting the loudest.”

Death toll mounts

Government forces and militiamen loyal to Assad killed at least 30 civilians and five defectors on Sunday, mostly in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, according to tallies by several activists’ organizations.

“Not a single opposition neighborhood was spared today. Troops either entered districts and raided houses, fired from roadblocks or tanks and pickup trucks hit houses and shops with machineguns,” said Abu Zeinab, an activist in the city.

Syrian authorities say they are fighting foreign-backed “terrorist groups” trying to spark civil war who have killed some 1,100 soldiers and police since March.

The official state news agency said a father and three children, who local activists said were shot dead by militiamen loyal to Assad in a drive-by shooting, were killed by a “an armed terrorist gang” that broke into their house.

“We see from this heinous crime that the terrorists are continuing to commit their crimes with cold blood,” the agency said.

Opposition sources said another 16 soldiers defected from Idlib on Sunday and fighting separately broke out between a new group of defectors, of similar size, and loyalist forces to the south, in the Josieh area on the border with Lebanon

They estimate the number of defectors from the military so far at several thousand, mainly army recruits from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority. Members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, have a tight grip on the country’s military and security apparatus.

The sectarian dimension to the unrest has come to the fore after tit-for-tat sectarian killings were reported near Homs, a nascent insurgency broke out in the provinces of Homs, Deraa and Idlib, and the United Nations warned of the risk of a civil war.

Peaceful way to stop violence

Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, said monitors were needed to keep a check on the forces of Syrian President Assad who have been accused by the U.N. of rights abuses.

“We believe that in full light of monitors and media, the security services reporting to Assad and his clique would not be able to operate the way they are operating now,” Feltman said in Jordan, according to AFP.

Allowing in monitors would be a “peaceful way of trying to stop this sustained cycle of violence that Assad seems committed to turning Syria into.”

Feltman also charged that Syria’s ally Iran was “actively engaged” in supporting the Syrian regime’s lethal crackdown and “facilitating” the killings of Syrian people.

The top U.N. human rights forum has condemned Syria for “gross and systematic” violations by its forces, including executions and the imprisonment of some 14,000 people.

Protests, modeled on “Arab Spring” revolts that have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, have continued in Homs and scores of cities and towns. Armed resistance has grown alongside the sustained peaceful demonstrations.

“The street still wants the protests to continue to maintain the moral edge of the uprising. But it does not mind if the revolt acquires armed teeth to protect the demonstrators and deter attacks by the army and security police,” activist Talal al-Ashqar told Reuters by phone from Damascus.

Assad repeatedly has said he is battling to preserve Syria’s sovereignty against a foreign conspiracy to sow sectarian strife. His isolation has deepened, with the Arab League, the European Union, the United States and Turkey piling on tougher and tougher economic sanctions.

But the 46-year-old president does not face any immediate threat of foreign military strikes. The West has shown no appetite for the type of intervention that helped oust Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.

The street still wants the protests to continue to maintain the moral edge of the uprising. But it does not mind if the revolt acquires armed teeth to protect the demonstrators and deter attacks by the army and security police

Syrian activist Talal al-Ashqar