Syria rejects Arab League's 'flagrant interference'

The Arab League call for Syria's Assad to transfer power to his deputy reflects increasing external pressure that diplomats hope will force the president's departure.

By , Correspondent

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    A general view of Arab foreign ministers during their meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo January 22. An Arab League committee on Syria will ask Arab foreign ministers on Sunday to extend a monitoring mission in the country by one month, sources attending the committee meeting said.
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An Arab League call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and transfer power to his deputy was rejected today by Syria, which described it as “flagrant interference” in its affairs.

The suggestion, which goes well beyond an Arab League agreement signed by Syria this fall, also calls for a new national unity government within two months that would incorporate regime figures and members of the opposition.

“Syria rejects the decisions taken which are outside an Arab working plan, and considers them an attack on its national sovereignty and a flagrant interference in internal affairs,” a Syrian official was quoted on state-run television as saying.

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Although the Arab League proposal stood little chance of being accepted by the Assad regime, it is one of several steps that is intended to further pressure and isolate Assad over the next three months, according to diplomats closely engaged with Syria.

While direct intervention is becoming a key demand of the Syrian opposition, the international community remains reluctant and Russia and China appear intent on blocking any UN Security Council resolution against the Assad regime. For now, Western and Arab officials are instead seeking to escalate pressure on Syria, hoping that Moscow and Beijing reverse their support and that the Assad regime buckles under the strain.

“At some point [Mr. Assad] looks at the dwindling foreign currency reserves, the increased violence in the Damascus suburbs, international allies abandoning him, and we hope he takes the decision just to take off,” says a Western official closely involved with his country's Syria policy, who asked not be identified.

Arab League observers

The 22-member Arab League also decided to renew the mandate of an observer mission to monitor Syrian compliance with an agreement signed in November that it would withdraw troops from towns and cities and release political prisoners.

However, the observer mission has been criticized for failing to stop violence against demonstrators.

More than 5,600 people have died since Syria's uprising began in March 2011, including several hundred since the observer mission began last month, according to the United Nations. Saudi Arabia announced that it was withdrawing its monitors from the mission, claiming that Syria had “not respected any of the clauses” of the original agreement.

The UN Security Council, which is the only international body that is seen has having the teeth to affect Assad's regime, remains deadlocked over how to respond to the crisis in Syria. Russia has introduced two draft resolutions on Syria, neither of which have gained traction among other member states. Even if the Security Council were to agree on a resolution, it is unlikely that it would have much impact on Assad’s decisions, analysts say.

Indirect pressure on Assad

The new Arab League proposal for Assad to step down is one example of the strategy of escalating pressure. Another is the recent taboo-breaking suggestion by Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa that Arab troops should be sent to Syria to stop the regime’s crackdown of the opposition is another.

Despite widespread skepticism toward the Arab League observer mission, diplomatic sources say that it helps publicize the reality on the ground in Syria and serves as an “annoyance” to Assad. They recommend increasing the number of observers and providing them with better logistical support in terms of secure communications and transport.

Whether Russia will choose to cut its losses and abandon Assad remains to be seen. The Russian Kommersant business daily reported Monday that Damascus last month signed a $550 million contract to buy 36 Yak-130 advanced training fighter planes from Russia.

But Western officials say that the more uncompromising Assad appears the more Moscow may begin mulling a post-Assad Syria, or at least exert more of its influence with Damascus to help find a solution.

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