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Arab League to increase the number of its monitors in Syria

January 8, 2012 |  1:58 pm

Syria-protest

This post has been updated. See the note below.

REPORTING FROM CAIRO AND BEIRUT — The Arab League is pressing ahead with a heavily criticized observer mission in Syria, saying that it will increase the number of monitors and calling on all sides to halt months of bloodshed.

The announcements came after the head of the mission briefed an Arab League ministerial committee in Cairo on Sunday on the preliminary findings of the observers, who are monitoring Syria's compliance with regional demands to end a violent crackdown on a nearly 10-month uprising.

Opposition activists contend that the mission, the first of its kind for the 22-member-regional bloc, has done little but provide a cover for more violence. Hundreds of people have been killed since Syria agreed Dec. 19 to admit the monitors, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists that organizes protests and documents the bloodshed. At least 21 more deaths were reported Sunday, the group said.

Members of the Syrian National Council, the most prominent opposition bloc, and other activists have called on the league to concede that it can’t protect civilians and to ask the U.N. Security Council to step in. The Arab Parliament, a league advisory body, has also declared the mission a failure and called for the immediate withdrawal of the observers.

In a statement Sunday, the ministerial committee urged the Syrian government to fulfill its commitments under a league-negotiated peace plan calling for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and residential areas, the release of political prisoners, free access to international media and dialogue with the opposition. The league also reiterated its demand for an end to “all acts of violence from any side.”

Qatar’s prime minister, Sheik Hamad ibn Jassim Jaber al Thani, who heads the ministerial committee, said he hoped the observers would be able to complete their task. But he told reporters that “this mission won’t last forever. If the killings continue, then the mission’s presence will be useless.”

The committee noted that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has made “partial progress” in fulfilling some of its obligations. It did not elaborate, but the league has previously reported that Syria has released about 3,500 detainees and pulled tanks out of cities. The latter point is disputed by opposition activists.

Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Dabi, who heads the mission, will submit a full report on the monitors’ findings on Jan. 19, the committee said.

Syrian authorities say they are committed to the league’s plan. They blame the continued bloodshed on what they describe as foreign-backed armed terrorists, who they say have killed more than 2,000 members of the security forces since major anti-government protests began in March.

What started as a mostly peaceful uprising has turned more violent in recent months, with military defectors claiming responsibility for attacks against government forces. In all, more than 5,000 people have been killed, according to U.N. estimates.

Journalists are heavily restricted in Syria making it difficult to verify the accounts provided by either side.

Critics contend the 165-member observer mission is too small to monitor trouble spots across a country of about 23 million people. The Qatari prime minister said the league hopes to increase the number of monitors to 300 in the next few days.

International human rights groups also have expressed concern that the monitors are not experienced at uncovering or documenting abuses. League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby will coordinate with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on ways to strengthen the “technical capacity” of the mission, the committee said, including providing training for the monitors.

[Updated 2:55 p.m. Jan. 8: The panel's recommendations did not satisfy activists in some of the country’s major opposition strongholds, which have borne the brunt of the crackdown.

“We don't want new deadlines, additional observers or equipment,” said an activist in the strife-torn city of Homs who goes by the nickname Abu Rami for security sake. “I can hear the gunfire outside. The killings continue.... We ask [the league] to submit the issue to the [U.N.] Security Council.”

Elaraby said there was nothing to prevent the Security Council from acting. “The Security Council has the authority to intervene in any matter under the sun … without needing us,” he said.]

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Rima Marrouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

Photo: Syrians living in Egypt take part in a protest in Cairo on Sunday before a meeting there of Arab League foreign ministers about the league's observer mission in Syria. Credit: Khaled Elfiqi / EPA

Popular Israeli anchor to quit television and enter politics

Yair-lapid

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Yair Lapid, a popular Israeli news anchor and television personality, is quitting journalism and heading for politics, local media reported Sunday.

Lapid's move put an end to yearlong speculation that he was eyeing a run for parliament while starting new debate about his move's consequences for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

The anchorman, who has hosted Channel 2's prime-time news magazaine "Friday Studio" for several years, informed the station's executives he would be leaving, according to numerous online Israel news reports.

In recent months, a number of polls predicted electoral success for a new party headed by Lapid. Although not formally declared, his positions would most likely be left-leaning and liberal. Many observers believe his eventual party would resemble that led by his late father, Tommy Lapid, also a former journalist.

Tommy Lapid was an economic conservative but staunchly liberal on personal liberties and a fierce fighter of religious restrictions on civil society. His Shinui Party, which means "change" in Hebrew, more than doubled its number of seats in parliament to 15 during the 2003 elections. That helped force its nemesis, the ultraorthodox Shas Party, out of the government.

The latest poll predicted Yair Lapid's unborn party could win 15 or even 20 seats in the 120-seat parliament and become a force to be reckoned with, possibly even becoming Israel's second-largest party and forming a coalition that could rival Netanyahu's.

Israel's next elections are scheduled for November 2013, but voting is commonly moved up. So far, Netanyahu's right-wing coalition has appeared solid and its opposition somewhat quiet and prone to infighting.

Recently, however, the opposition has stirred to life in response to increasingly conservative legislation. In addition, new Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovitch, another former high-profile media figure, has challenged Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni's leadership of the opposition.

Though Lapid still does not have a party, others are already feeling the heat. Kadima and Labor might have to compete for opposition votes not only with each other but with a new party. Religious politicians, meanwhile, fear a fierce anti-religious agenda.

"The Left's revenge will come," a column Lapid penned in November, hints at his plans for the right-wing nationalists dominating Netanyahu's coalition and its legislative efforts. Ultimately, he indicates, their support might cost Netanyahu his ruling coalition. 

Opposition lawmaker Ronit Tirosh recently proposed a bill that would require a six-month cooling-off period for journalists seeking election for public office. Dubbed the Lapid Bill, it was believed to be tailored to keep the anchor away from politics. Tirosh rejected the charge, and in a radio interview Sunday said the bill championed a principle rather than targeted a particular person.

Carmel Shama-Hacohen of Likud, a co-sponsor of the bill, welcomed Lapid's resignation and said it is further proof of the bill's relevance. For months, Israelis were given prime-time news "by a politician disguised as a journalist" advancing a political agenda, he said.

Other lawmakers, including former journalists Daniel Ben-Simon and Nitzan Horowitz, welcomed Lapid's decision and called on the sponsors to withdraw the bill. For now it remains on the agenda for a preliminary vote on Wednesday.

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Photo: Israeli journalist Yair Lapid in 2010. Credit: Miriam Alster / Flash90

 

 


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