CAIRO AND DAMASCUS // Arab foreign ministers agreed yesterday to support the Syrian opposition and called for a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping mission in Syria.
They also announced the end of a controversial Arab League observer mission that was sent to monitor violence.
Arab diplomats “will open channels of communication with the Syrian opposition and offer full political and financial support”, and will urge the opposition to unify its ranks, the league said after a meeting in Cairo.
The organisation will ask the United Nations Security Council to approve a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping force to oversee the implementation of a ceasefire.
The statement did not detail what the peacekeeping force would do, but diplomats have been talking of a joint observer mission to monitor the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s implementation of a peace deal he signed with the League.
The Arab ministers called for a halt to “all diplomatic cooperation with representatives of the Syrian regime in all states and organisations and international conferences”, but will leave each member state to implement that decision.
Most league members, including the UAE, have already expelled Syrian ambassadors from their capitals and recalled their own envoys from Damascus.
The UN says more than 5,400 civilians have been killed and Damascus says more than 2,000 of its security forces have died in the year-long uprising and efforts to quash it.
The original league monitoring mission was considered inept and its own report listed serious shortcomings. The head of the mission, the Sudanese general Mohammed Al Dabi, stepped down yesterday.
The former Jordanian foreign minister Abdel Elah Al Khatib, the UN’s top official for Libya during the revolution last year, was proposed as a special envoy for the Syria crisis.
Syrian opposition leaders have criticised the observer mission for failing to pressure Mr Al Assad to stop attacks on civilians across the country and accept the league peace plan calling for him to hand over power to the vice president and create a unity government to pave the way for elections.
An attempt last week to pass a Security Council resolution endorsing the league’s plan was blocked by Russia and China, after their representatives said it would increase the likelihood of foreign military intervention.
The veto was a rejection of calls from the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, for an armed peacekeeping mission.
The League is putting an almost identical resolution to the 193-member General Assembly, where every state has a vote and none a veto, as early as Friday.
The Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, said in remarks to Russian religious leaders last week that “one cannot act like an elephant in a china shop”, cautioning against a repeat of the Nato-backed revolution in Libya and what he described as a pattern of foreign interventions in internal affairs of nations.
“Help them, advise them, limit, for instance, their ability to use weapons but do not interfere under any circumstances,” Mr Putin said. Syria is one of Russia’s staunchest allies in the Middle East, a major weapons buyer and the site of a warm-water port for Russian warships.
The uprising began peacefully last year, with activists inspired by regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia after huge demonstrations.
But as troops began attacking strongholds of dissent across the country, opposition figures began to arm themselves and fight back. Thousands of soldiers have defected to the opposition and the situation verges on civil war.
The Arab League has shied away from putting its weight behind foreign military intervention. In an unprecedented move last year, it gave its approval for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya to protect civilians from Col Muammar Qaddafi’s troops.
Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar, said a new observer mission could be an important step.
“The previous mission was controlled by the Syrians and had the wrong people,” he said. “If they can get it right this time, as well as have larger numbers, it may be worthwhile. The main focus should be to stop the killing and to get Assad to do what he signed up to do when he agreed to the Arab League plan.”
Gen Al Dabi, the outgoing observer mission head, was heavily criticised by Syrian activists even before his final report was submitted to the League last month.
Although it contradicted itself on various points, such as Syrian government cooperation with the mission, the report was broadly supportive of the Syrian regime’s claim to be facing armed insurgents.
Opposition activists were furious with the findings and accused Gen Al Dabi’s team of being duped by the regime and of cosying up to powerful security and business figures.
Syrian officials were, on the contrary, delighted with Gen Al Dabi’s conclusions and believed they vindicated claims by Damascus that it is facing violent terrorists, not a peaceful political uprising.
While Syria agreed to an extension of the observer mission last month, it did not approve international involvement in the initiative or to monitors being given a beefed-up mandate, for example freedom to move without an escort.
The Syrian government has long insisted it will not support any measures it considers erode its sovereignty and it tightly restricts the work of international agencies, even aid organisations, on its soil.
And Yusef Ahmed, the Syrian ambassador in Cairo, said last night: “The Syrian Arab Republic categorically rejects the decisions of the Arab League,” which “reflects the hysteria of these governments” after failing to get foreign intervention at the UN Security Council.
When faced with a UN investigation into an alleged secret nuclear programme, Syria granted limited access to international inspectors and, after years of stonewalling, was subsequently accused by the UN’s atomic energy watchdog of failing to cooperate with its work.
“Assad will see this new mission as a Trojan horse, as a way for the international community to get its hands involved in the Syria file, he will be highly suspicious of this,” said an independent Syrian analyst.“He knew he could easily contain the Arab League monitors but it will be much harder for him to control a UN mission.”
Russia is likely to have a significant role in whether the observer mission gets access to Syria, the analyst said. “If Moscow tells Assad to let a joint Arab League-United Nations mission in, it will be almost impossible for him to say no,” he said. “But if Russia sees this as a trick by the international community and sides with Assad then the initiative will not get off the ground.”
* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse