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Six Persian Gulf nations plan to pull peace monitors from Syria

January 24, 2012 | 10:06 am

REPORTING FROM DAMASCUS, SYRIA AND BEIRUT -- An Arab League peace plan for Syria appeared to be near collapse Tuesday as six Persian Gulf nations announced their intention to withdraw monitors from Syria and urged the United Nations Security Council to take “all needed measures” to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad to relinquish power.

The gulf monarchies, including regional giant Saudi Arabia, said in a statement that Assad’s government had failed to comply with demands by the 22-member Arab League designed to curb the bloodshed in Syria. The six nations -- which also include Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates -- contribute about one-third of the league's 165 or so monitors in the country.

On Monday, Syria rejected as a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty a proposed Arab League political  road map that called on Assad to transfer power to his deputy while a national unity government was formed within two months. Supervised parliamentary and presidential elections would follow, according to the proposal.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was defiant Tuesday in a news conference in Damascus, assailing the Arab League political plan and denouncing “a plot against Syria” abetted by Arab nations. Syria, a close ally of Iran, has repeatedly alleged that it is the victim of a “conspiracy” backed by Washington and other Western nations in alliance with Arab states.

Moallem was dismissive of any effort to take the question of Syria to the Security Council, saying the Arab League could take the issue “to New York or to the moon, as long as we don’t have to pay [for] their ticket.”

Syria is counting on two Security Council allies, Russia and China, to block any U.N. effort to pressure the Assad regime. Last year, Russia and China jointly vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Damascus’ crackdown on protests.

Both Russia and China are wary of the Libya precedent, in which a U.N. resolution last year opened the way for armed Western intervention against the government of the late Moammar Kadafi. Western nations have denied any intention to intervene militarily in Syria.

"Russia will not agree on the foreign interference in Syria's internal affairs and this is a red line,” Moallem said Tuesday.

But Western and Arab diplomats have voiced the hope that the rejection of the Arab League proposal by Syria could highlight what they call Damascus' intransigence and weaken Russian and Chinese resolve, leading to some U.N. move against the Assad regime.

Since an Arab League observer mission arrived in Syria last month, Moallem said, “armed groups” had exploited its presence to step up attacks on government forces, doubling and tripling the number of army and law enforcement officers casualties in the conflict.

The government says more than 1,000 law enforcement and military personnel have been killed since the uprising began in March. Still, Syria says it is committed to political reform and a new constitution after more than four decades of authoritarian rule led by the Assad family.

“We will teach them democracy and pluralism," Moallem said, referring to other Arab nations.

According to the United Nations, more than 5,000 Syrians have been killed in political violence since March.

The gulf nations’ decision to withdraw their personnel in Syria left doubts about the future of the monitor mission, which was intended in part to ensure that Damascus complied with an  Arab League peace plan. That plan called in part for Syrian authorities to withdraw its forces from cities and other residential areas, release prisoners and open talks with the opposition.

Syrian authorities have expressed concern that armed rebels would move into any areas vacated by its forces. The government has already lost effective control of some rebel strongholds, such as parts of the embattled city of Homs, one of the flashpoints of the uprising.

Syria is considering an Arab League request to extend the observer mission by another month. The observer contingent could theoretically proceed without the participation of the six gulf states.

But the effectiveness of the observers has already been challenged. Some opponents of Syria's government view the mission as simply buying time for Assad.  Still, some Syrians have voiced support for the monitors, saying they have provided a limited  measure of protection against government forces.


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-- Alexandra Zavis in Damascus and Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut

Photo: Syrians demonstrate outside the Arab League building in Cairo on Sunday. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images