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Arab observers to report back on Syria mission; Kurd groups to unite against Assad

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As many as 25 people have been killed by Syrian security forces on Thursday across the country, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists, as Syrian Kurdish groups will try to unite to explain their demands to Arab groups trying to topple the Syrian President.

The head of the Arab League’s heavily criticized observer mission to Syria was due in Cairo on Thursday to report on its first month of operations amid growing frustration at its failure to staunch 10 months of bloodshed.

The pan-Arab bloc’s deputy leader, Ahmed Ben Helli, said the “decisive” report would evaluate the Syrian government’s cooperation with the mission, while noting the observers’ difficulty in gaining access to hot spots, according to AFP.

“We are at a turning point, as the Arab observer mission’s report will be presented on Thursday, marking a month since the protocol was signed,” Ben Helli told Qatari state media late on Wednesday.

“The report will be decisive,” Ben Helli added.

Arab foreign ministers will hear the mission’s report at a meeting on Sunday at which they will decide whether to seek Syria’s agreement to extend it for a second month.

The first month expired on Thursday but the two sides agreed that the mission could continue until Sunday’s meeting.

Expected report

The League’s Syria operations chief, Adnan Khodeir, said mission leader General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi was expected at the League’s headquarters in Cairo at around 6:30 pm (1630 GMT).

He would then hand over the report to League chief Nabil al-Arabi, either later Thursday or early Friday, ahead of meetings of Arab ministers on Saturday and Sunday.

Qatar, whose Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani chairs the Arab League panel on Syria which meets on Saturday, has been pressing for the observer mission to be given teeth through the deployment of Arab peacekeeping troops.

The Qatari proposal is not formally on the agenda of Sunday’s foreign ministers’ meeting to discuss the mission's future but could be discussed, Khodeir said.

“Any country that wishes can bring up the issue,” he said, referring to the call by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad Ben Khalifa Al Thani, to send Arab troops to Syria, which Damascus has flatly rejected.

“What we are talking about now at the Arab League is whether there will be a new approach concerning the observer mission,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Arabi has also said the idea could come up for debate.

As activists reported another nine deaths at the hands of the Syrian security forces on Thursday, a coalition of some 140 Arab human rights groups demanded the withdrawal of the League’s “flawed” mission and called for U.N. intervention.

Among the dead, were four leading pro-democracy activists who had gone into hiding and were killed in an ambush in Idlib province in the northwest, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Arab mission, which currently numbers about 165 monitors, has been in Syria since December 26 to oversee an Arab road map under which President Bashar al-Assad’s government agreed to end violence.

“No observers have been able to do their job: instead, the mission legitimizes the Syrian regime,” said Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, in the rights groups' joint statement.

Mission not allowed to work

Former observer Anouar Malek, who resigned in protest over the mission's credibility and aims, echoed Ziadeh’s criticism.

“I was threatened with death for doing my job as I watched people being killed, beaten up and arrested by police, soldiers and militiamen. The Syrian regime is plainly defying the Arab League,” he said.

The United Nations estimates that the unrest in Syria between the security forces and pro-democracy activists has left more than 5,400 people dead since it first erupted in March, with 400 killed since the observers' deployment.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said it was clear that the observer mission was “in difficulty” and not being allowed to work.

“Syria is not respecting the undertaking it gave to the Arab League to withdraw its troops to barracks,” he said, adding that the observers’ report should be submitted to the U.N. Security Council for further action.

But a tough Security Council resolution on Syria has been blocked by veto-wielding permanent members Russia and China, which defended the Arab mission on Wednesday.

“Since the Arab League observer mission began, the violence in Syria has not completely ended, but the security situation of major areas has improved,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.

This “shows the mission is effective,” he added.

For its part, Moscow has warned against Western calls for punitive measures against Damascus, insisting the Syrian opposition is as much to blame for the violence as the regime.

That has caused growing frustration among Western governments.

Germany’s U.N. envoy Peter Wittig said the Security Council “did not live up to its responsibilities” in face of the vetoing by Moscow and Beijing last October of a European-drafted resolution that would have threatened Damascus with “targeted measures.”

Syrian Kurdish groups

Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish groups opposed to Assad will try to unite this month to explain their autonomy demands to Arab groups trying to topple the Syrian leader, activists said on Thursday, according to Reuters.

While security forces have clashed daily with protesters and insurgents demanding Assad’s downfall in mainly Sunni Arab towns, Syrian Kurdish areas have remained relatively calm, despite many Kurds’ long-standing opposition to the government.

Syrian Kurdish exile leaders say they do not trust the Arab opposition to heed their demands for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish northeast of the country.

Kurdish groups representing Syria’s largest ethnic minority are also divided among themselves, with some factions backed by Iraqi Kurds, and another by Turkish Kurd rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), independent analysts said.

“There will be a national conference of all the Kurdish parties to form one front,” said Mahmoud Mohammed Bave Sabir, a leading member of the Democratic Union Kurdish Party of Syria, one of the oldest Kurdish opposition groups.

“The aim of the conference is to press the demands of the Kurds in Syria and to open a dialogue with the Arab opposition,” he told Reuters.

A date for the meeting has not been set, but it will be held this month in Arbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, the activists said. All the main Syrian Kurdish parties, plus intellectuals and independent organizations, have been invited.

“The Arab opposition does not care about the Kurdish cause,” said Sarbast Nabi, a Syrian Kurdish politics professor at Salahaddin University in Arbil. “All they have promised is to deal with us as Syrian citizens.”

Kurds say they have been sidelined from the opposition Syrian National Council, an exile group that was set up in Turkey to coordinate a 10-month-old uprising against Assad.

“The Arab opposition is made up of Islamists and Arab nationalists who do not accept Kurdish demands for a democratic, pluralist, secular state where the rights of all minorities are recognised,” Nabi said.

Syrian Kurdish groups are also wary of Turkey’s influence on Syrian Arab dissidents based in Istanbul, given Ankara’s historic hostility to demands for autonomy for its own large Kurdish minority.

In 2004, Syrian Kurds fought deadly clashes with security forces for days after an incident at a football stadium in the main Kurdish city of Qamishli. At the time, they said they received no support from Arabs now leading the opposition.

But student activists say they are still mobilizing support inside Syria in preparation for taking to the streets.

Many thousands of Kurds live in the capital Damascus, as well as in the northeast, and if they swung their weight behind the uprising, it would deal another powerful blow to Assad.