REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- With the threat of more sanctions looming, Syria said Monday that it is ready to sign a deal soon with the Arab League allowing foreign observers into the country to monitor a plan aimed at ending months of deadly unrest.
The government responded “positively” to a draft protocol and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem sent a letter late Sunday to the league’s secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Makdissi added, however, that Syria wants what he described as minor changes and clarifications included in the document, including a declaration that the league opposes foreign "interference" in the crisis. Syria also wants the document to be signed in Damascus and expects punitive measures imposed by the 22-member bloc, including a suspension and sanctions, to be lifted as soon as that is done, Makdissi said.
Elaraby dismissed that demand, telling reporters in Cairo that the sanctions would remain in force until another decision is taken by Arab foreign ministers, according to news service reports. He also said Moallem’s letter contained "new components” that would need to be discussed among league members before a decision is reached.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has repeatedly declared its support for the league's peace plan even as it ignores deadlines -- most recently on Sunday -- to accept monitors to observe the withdrawal of security forces from urban areas, the release of political prisoners and other provisions.
Officials have complained that the league’s proposal for the observer mission impinges on the country's sovereignty. Critics contend Assad's regime is trying to buy time to pursue its crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising.
“If the regime had good intentions, it would have accepted the Arab League proposal when it was first issued … and would have allowed international observers and media into Syria,” said Rima Filhan, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group. “It is obvious that he [Assad] is not interested in doing so.”
State-run media on Monday published photographs and footage from a live-fire military exercise involving missile units, tanks and helicopters, a show of force that did not evoke a willingness to bow to international demands, although Makdissi said the maneuvers were routine.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, quoted Gen. Dawood Abdullah Rajiha, the defense minister and deputy armed forces commander, as saying that the military “will remain loyal to the homeland and will defend the interests of the Syrian people."
The armed forces are one of the key pillars of Assad’s rule. Its senior ranks are filled with members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, a Shiite Muslim offshoot. But there have been a growing number of defections in recent months, particularly by low-level Sunni Muslim conscripts who have started fighting Assad’s regime, contributing to a sharp escalation in the bloodshed.
November was the deadliest month yet, with as many as 950 people killed, according to opposition accounts. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, reported 17 more people killed Monday, most of them in the central province of Homs, epicenter of the uprising.
The United Nations says more than 4,000 people have been killed since major antigovernment protests began in March. The government disputes the figure and says more than 1,100 security force members have been killed defending the country against what it describes as foreign-backed armed gangs aiming to ignite a civil war. Nine were buried Monday, SANA reported.
Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria, making it virtually impossible to confirm either side's account.
Last month, the Arab League suspended Syria and approved an array of sanctions, including freezing government assets, suspending cooperating with the country’s central bank and halting funding for projects in Syria. If Assad's government does not agree to monitors, it could also face additional measures approved over the weekend, including a travel ban on 19 senior officials and a reduction in the number of flights between Syria and other Arab nations.
Syria is already hurting from several rounds of sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union, including an oil embargo. Turkey, one of Syria’s major trading partners and a former ally, has also imposed punitive measures.
Syria’s Cabinet hit back Sunday by imposing a 30% tariff on Turkish imports and fees on Turkish vehicles leaving Syria, SANA reported.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Rima Marrouch contributed to this report.
Photo: A Syrian armed forces tank fires during a live ammunitions exercise in an undisclosed location Sunday. Officials called the maneuvers routine, though they coincided with ongoing protests against the government. Credit: SANA