Arab ministers to debate Syria draft at Baghdad meet; Assad opponents join forces


Arab foreign ministers will discuss a draft resolution on Wednesday calling on Syria’s government to hold talks with the opposition and to end the violence, on the eve of a landmark summit in Baghdad, as Syria’s opposition factions agreed to join forces against the regime.

Heavy clashes were reported between the Syrian government forces and the Free Syrian Army in the region of Harasta in Damascus suburbs, Al Arabiya reported on Wednesday.

As many as 80 people have been killed by the fire of Syrian troops across the country, mostly in Idlib and Homs, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists at the Local Coordination Committee.

The Syria crisis, in which monitors say almost 10,000 people have died in a bloody crackdown on a year-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, looms large as officials meet ahead of a summit of Arab leaders on Thursday.

The summit will be the first such gathering hosted by Iraq in more than 20 years.

Draft resolution on Syria

The draft resolution, a copy of which was obtained by AFP, urges the “Syrian government and all opposition factions to deal positively with the (U.N.-Arab League) envoy (Kofi Annan) by starting serious national dialogue.”

It also calls on the Syrian opposition “to unify its ranks and prepare... to enter into serious dialogue (with the regime) to achieve the democratic life which is demanded by the Syrian people.”

And “the Syrian government should immediately stop all actions of violence and killing, protect Syrian civilians and guarantee the freedom of peaceful demonstrations for achieving demands of the Syrian people,” the text says.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi told reporters on Tuesday that “the Syrian subject will have a significant place in discussions” between foreign ministers.

“I think that the ministers’ meeting tomorrow and the Arab summit will support” a six-point plan put forward by ex-U.N. chief Annan and reportedly accepted by Damascus on Tuesday.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has said he expects a resolution to address Syria, but added he did not think Arab leaders would call on Assad to step down.

Annan’s plan includes calls for a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire and access to all areas affected by the fighting in Syria.

Annan was in Beijing on Tuesday on a trip aimed at shoring up support for his plan, after visiting Russia over the weekend and obtaining Moscow’s backing for it.

Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi said Annan’s deputy Nasser al-Qudwa was due in Baghdad on Wednesday to brief “the summit on the latest from Kofi Annan’s deliberations.”

Meanwhile, the pro-Hezbollah Manar TV station in Lebanon reported a decision by Damascus that it will reject any initiative on Syria crisis issued by the Arab Summit.

Syria’s splintered opposition leaders reunite

Meanwhile, Syria’s splintered opposition leaders reunited under an opposition umbrella group on Tuesday in a bid to show the world they can form a real alternative to Assad.

At the same time, Assad’s opponents grouped around the Syrian National Council (SNC) remained skeptical of a peace and ceasefire plan drawn up by Annan if that plan did not lead to Assad’s removal.

Invited by Turkey and Arab League chair Qatar to form a common front in their year-old uprising against Assad, in which the United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed, the opposition came to the meeting in Istanbul on Tuesday riven by internal disputes.

Early on in the talks in a seaside hotel, veteran dissident Haitham al-Maler and Kurdish delegates walked out, saying their views were not being heard.

Faced with a meeting teetering on the brink of failure, the Turkish hosts, according to delegates, exerted pressure on SNC leaders to accept calls for reform and replace some personnel in key positions.

The opposition also came under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who told reporters in Washington the opposition should promise to protect the rights of all Syrians in any political transition, according to Reuters.

A small group of influential leaders, including Maler, who had withdrawn from the SNC a month ago, agreed to return on condition the council was made more democratic and expanded within three weeks. Without a deal there was a danger the SNC could splinter further.

“A last-minute deal has saved this conference,” SNC member Abdul Rahman al-Haj said.

“Now the international community no longer has an excuse to withhold support for the revolution, help arm the Free Syrian Army and establish safe zones to protect the civilian Syrian population.”

Opposition disunity has fed fears that Syria could slide into sectarian and ethnic conflict, giving pause to governments which would otherwise be glad to see Assad’s downfall.

The deal satisfied all but the Kurds, who stayed away due to the refusal of some SNC members to accept their demand for a reference to Kurdish rights in the group’s vision for a post-Assad Syria.

Kamal al-Labwani, an opposition leader who had split from the SNC last month, said he doubted whether the opposition would hold together, but for now their accord will help Arab and Western governments make Assad stop his brutal repression.

“I have had to make deals here today with people I am morally opposed to dealing with,” Labwani told Reuters. “By agreeing here today we will help avoid civil war in Syria.”

SNC president Burhan Ghalioun, a Paris-based academic, said he would meet to discuss reform of the SNC with all opposition blocs on Wednesday.

SNC president Ghalioun earlier outlined proposals that included helping organize and arm the rebel Syrian Free Army, established by army defectors to resist Assad’s forces, and raising money to pay recruits.

During the meeting, representatives of Syria’s Kurds walked out after saying the SNC had failed to explicitly address Kurdish hopes of having an autonomous federal region within a post-Assad Syria.

The meeting ended with all the opposition, barring the Kurdish contingent, pledging to build a democratic state, without any agenda for revenge, and to seek reconciliation once Assad is removed.

Now the international community no longer has an excuse to withhold support for the revolution, help arm the Free Syrian Army and establish safe zones to protect the civilian Syrian population

Abdul Rahman al-Haj, SNC