Syrian observer mission in turmoil as Saudi Arabia pulls out
REPORTING FROM CAIRO AND DAMASCUS, SYRIA -- Saudi Arabia said Sunday that it was pulling its observers out of Syria because it sees no evidence that Damascus is complying with an Arab League initiative to end months of bloodshed.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal made the announcement at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo to decide whether to continue the mission, whose one-month mandate expired Thursday.
He urged the international community, including Syrian allies Russia and China, to use “all possible pressure” to persuade President Bashar Assad’s government to implement the plan calling for the withdrawal of government forces from cities and residential areas, the release of political prisoners, free access for the media and dialogue with its opponents.
The league’s ministerial committee on Syria met earlier Sunday to consider a report by the mission’s head, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Dabbi.
The committee recommended that the league continue the mission, which can be extended for another month with the approval of Assad’s government. It also urged Arab foreign ministers to increase the number of observers in the country, which currently stand at about 165, and provide them with additional technical support.
The recommendations came despite complaints from opposition and human rights activists that the observer mission has only bought the Syrian government more time to pursue a violent crackdown against dissent.
Security forces have killed as many as 976 people since the mission began in December, including 28 women and 54 children, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists who organize protests and document the violence. In all, more than 5,000 people have been killed since the start of major anti-government protests in March, according to United Nations estimates.
Dabbi defended the mission over the weekend, saying it was not designed to stop the killings but to verify the government’s compliance with the peace plan agreed to in November.
The emir of Qatar, which orchestrated Syria’s suspension from the league and the imposition of sweeping sanctions against the country, has called for the deployment of Arab forces to “stop the killing” -- a proposal reiterated Sunday by the country’s foreign minister.
"The reality is that the bloodshed hasn't stopped,” Sheik Hamad ibn Jassim ibn Al-Thani said in Cairo. “What is needed now is a total revision of the mission's work.”
Syria has rejected Qatar’s proposal and vowed to defend its sovereignty. Syrian officials accuse Qatar of provisioning and financing “armed gangs” that they say have killed more than 2,000 security force members.
What began as a mostly peaceful uprising has turned more violent in recent months as military defectors and other opposition supporters have taken up arms against the government, raising fears that Syria could slide into civil war.
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo and Alexandra Zavis in Damascus. Rima Marrouch in Damascus contributed to this report.
Photo: Anti-Syrian government protesters gather at a square in the mountain resort town of Zabadani on Friday. Credit: Associated Press