Syria nears deal on Arab monitors, but Homs violence spikes

Syria 'responded positively' to an Arab plan to allow outside monitors, but the killing of more than 60 people in Homs over the past 24 hours raises doubts about the regime's sincerity.

By , Correspondent

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    Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Homs on Sunday.
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On what some have characterized as one of the single worst days of violence in Syria's nearly nine-month uprising, President Bashar al-Assad's regime has responded positively to the Arab League’s demand to allow observers to enter the country.

But while Syrian officials have indicated their willingness to accept the Arab League plan – meant to end the increasingly violent stand-off between protesters and the Assad regime – they say they will not do so without certain conditions, which may cause the deal to fall through.

Among the stipulations, Syria has demanded that once it signs the agreement all sanctions against it are lifted and the Arab League deals with it in a neutral manner.

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“The Syrian government has responded positively on the subject of signing the Arabic Protocol between Syria and the Arab League according to the common framework based on the Syrian understanding of this cooperation,” said Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdesi said yesterday, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Since Syria's uprising began in mid-March, at least 4,000 people have died in clashes that have intensified in recent weeks, with growing signs of an armed insurgency as low-level soldiers from the Syrian Army defect to the protesters' side. November saw the worst violence so far, with up to 950 killed, the L.A. Times reports.

And yesterday was one of the single deadliest days of the uprising, Al Jazeera reports, citing figures from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. In Homs, which has become an epicenter for the uprising, at least 34 activists were kidnapped and killed by shabiha – armed gangs that are mainly Alawite, the offshoot of Shiite Islam that Assad's family and much of his regime adhere to.

But residents and activists said that the violence was hitting both sides, with more than 60 bodies in total being taken to hospitals in Homs, according to Al Jazeera. As with all reports of violence in Syria, which has tightened its borders since the uprisings began, independent observers have been unable to verify such reports.

While such violence continues, the Arab League and the Syrian opposition remain skeptical that the Assad regime is sincere about ending the conflict, the Associated Press reports.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby swiftly rebuffed Damascus' demands, and the Syrian opposition accused Assad's regime of wasting time and trying to trick Arab leaders into reversing punitive measures against Damascus.

"Any announcements made by the Syrian regime while the military crackdown continues has for us zero credibility," said Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group.

Arab League officials are reviewing Syria's request, but say they will not lift the sanctions. Bloomberg reports that Assad is under increasing political and economic pressure, including from Turkey, the US, and Europe. Already, Syria's central bank has invested $3 billion to protect its currency and support trade since the unrest began, but that has not been enough to save the Syrian pound from falling 13 percent against the dollar this year.

Lebanon's Daily Star reports that Syria yesterday slapped retaliatory sanctions on Turkey, which had been a close ally until Assad ignored repeated warnings earlier this year from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has since turned against the man he had until recently referred to as "brother." Syria's new sanctions against Turkey include a tariff of 30 percent on imports and "prohibitive duties on fuel and freight." Turkey will be the "biggest loser," a pro-Assad economist told state-run media.

But activists appear just as determined as the regime to press on. While foreign media is banned from entering Syria, a CBS correspondent recently managed to sneak into the country as a tourist and speak to activists who showed little willingness to back down in their struggle against Assad’s regime.

We have to continue. We decided to start our revolution, this is what we have been dreaming of long time ago,” Syrian activist Razan Zaytouni told CBS.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government has shown a similar unwillingness to back down, going as far as conducting live-fire military drills in an apparent show of force for the benefit of Western nations. Troops fired long range missiles and conducted coordinated exercises with tanks and helicopters. Military officials say the drill was designed to show “the capabilities and readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression,” reports the Guardian.

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