Syria rejects Arab League demand that Assad cede power
This post has been updated; please see note below.
REPORTING FROM DAMASCUS, SYRIA -- Syria on Monday rejected Arab League demands that President Bashar Assad hand power to a transitional government as “blatant interference” in its internal affairs and an example of foreign plots against the country.
"Syria condemns this decision, which came in the framework of the conspiratorial schemes hatched against Syria," an unidentified government official was quoted as saying by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency.
Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on Sunday agreed on a political roadmap for Syria in which a national dialogue should begin within two weeks and a unity government should be formed within two months to oversee preparations for a general election. Under the league’s plan, Assad would delegate authority to one of his two vice presidents for the transition period.
The demands were an indication of the level of frustration among Syria’s neighbors over the government’s failure to fully implement a league-negotiated plan aimed at ending months of bloodshed that have raised fears of a destabilizing civil war.
Burhan Ghalioun, head of the main opposition Syrian National Council, welcomed the league’s plan, saying it confirms that Arab countries want the Assad government to be replaced. But other activists said the plan was impossible to achieve and would only buy the government more time to pursue a violent crackdown against its foes.
[Updated at 6:10 p.m., Jan. 23: European officials welcomed the league's plan at a meeting Monday in Brussels where they agreed to impose sanctions on 22 more Syrian officials and eight companies. The individuals will have their assets frozen and be banned from entering the European Union.]
Opposition activists say security forces killed as many as 976 people during a one-month observer mission, which was launched to help determine whether the government was fulfilling its commitment to end the crackdown. As many as 36 people were reported killed around the country Monday, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees. The figure could not be independently verified.
The government says it is fighting what it describes as foreign-backed armed gangs, which it charges have killed more than 2,000 security force members since the uprising began in March.
The head of the observers, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Dabi, defended the league’s mission Monday, saying its task was “to monitor, not to stop the killings.”
“After the arrival of the mission, the violence started to ease gradually,” he told reporters in Cairo. He said the monitors had verified 136 deaths on both sides of the conflict since they began to operate in the country.
The league agreed Sunday to continue the observer mission for another month, a decision that requires the consent of the Syrian government.
-- Alexandra Zavis and Rima Marrouch
Photo: Children chant slogans Sunday during a protest outside the Arab League headquarters in Cairo. Credit: Associated Press/Ahmed Ali