Syria's deadline to end violence slips by during a bloody weekend

The Arab League's Saturday night deadline to end the violence in Syria was bookended by government crackdowns and an attack on the Baath party headquarters Sunday.

Bassem Tellawi/AP
A general view of the ruling Baath party headquarters, in Damascus, Syria, Nov. 20. Residents in the Syrian capital awoke to two loud explosions Sunday amid reports from activists that the Damascus headquarters of the ruling Baath party had been hit by several rocket-propelled grenades.

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The Free Syrian Army, made up of Syrian Army defectors, today denied its involvement in a Sunday attack on the ruling Baath Party's headquarters in Damascus without explaining why 24 hours earlier it had claimed responsibility for the attack.

The commander, Riad al-Asaad, said that the group would not attack a "civilian installation," the Associated Press reports. Up to this point, all of the Free Syrian Army's (FSA) operations have been directed toward the military.

The Free Syrian Army is a controversial force in Syria's uprising. Many in the opposition want their movement to remain peaceful, but the FSA and other groups say that "there are limits to a peaceful uprising" and they have been reached, according to AP. Their decision to pick up arms has prompted warnings of an incipient civil war. The Assad regime has capitalized on the change in tactics, seizing the opportunity to refer to it as an armed uprising, as President Bashar al-Assad did in an interview Sunday, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"We have to prevent militants from doing what they are doing now: killing civilians, doing massacres in different places in Syria," President Assad said in an interview with the Sunday Times.

"We have to stop the smuggling of armaments from outside Syria, from the borders of neighboring countries. We have to stop having the money coming in to support those militants again across the borders," he said.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the political opposition, led by the Syrian National Council, feels pressured to choose sides or risk splitting the opposition further. "The Free Syrian Army should work on keeping track of its dissident soldiers, that is what we are trying to do: unite the opposition, peaceful protests and any armed elements, under one political platform," said Omar Idlibi, a spokesman for the opposition network Local Coordination Committees, according to the WSJ.

There is also the very real concern about what will happen if a full-blown civil war does develop – the defectors, even if tens of thousand-strong as leaders say, will be up against the Syrian Army's tanks and heavy artillery.

"I think it's important not to overstate the military capabilities of these attacks," British Ambassador to Syria Simon Collis said in an interview from Damascus. "The fact that people have popped off a couple of RPGs at nighttime against symbolic targets – that by itself only means that something is happening in Damascus that wasn't happening before," Mr. Collis said.

"You have armed forces that are 200,000-plus strength, with security and intelligence services on top of that. Unless something happens to those organizations in terms of their cohesion – regardless of what we've seen so far in terms of the latest defections – it doesn't seem likely that it's going to change the balance of things in military terms anytime soon," he said.

The Arab League's efforts to bring an end to Syria's violence appeared to be at an impasse over the weekend as the Arab League rejected the Syrian government's suggested changes to the League's plan and the government missed the Saturday night deadline to end its crackdown.

The League said the suggested changes would "change radically" its plan, the Los Angeles Times reports. The original plan included permission for 500 international observers to enter the country, but over the weekend, that number dropped to 30.

A core dispute appears to be the amount of freedom given to the planned Arab monitor mission, which is a key part of the peace road map. The league wants its monitors to have freedom to travel and meet with the opposition, visit conflict zones, hospitals and other relevant sites. This prospect appears to worry Damascus.
 Syria says the monitors will have "freedom of movement," reported the official news agency, SANA, and will be allowed to meet with the opposition. But Damascus wants "to be informed of the places the mission will go," the news agency said, quoting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.

Reuters reports that Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby  said in a letter to the Syrian government that the changes suggested by Syria "affect the heart of the protocol and fundamentally change the nature of the mission."

Assad said in his Sunday Times interview that he estimates that the civilian death toll – which the UN estimates at 3,500 – is only 619, WSJ online reports.

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