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Arab League: Syria must transition to elections

Arab foreign ministers agreed that Syria's President Bashar Assad should delegate power to a deputy and set up a unity government as a prelude to early parliamentary and presidential elections.
Image: Arab League observers talk to people during a visit to Zabadani
Arab League observers, wearing orange vests, talk to people during a visit to Zabadani, near Damasus, on Saturday.Handout / Reuters
/ Source: news services

Arab foreign ministers agreed Sunday on a new political roadmap for Syria that sees President Bashar Assad delegating power to a deputy and setting up a unity government as a prelude to early parliamentary and presidential elections.

Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told a news conference after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo that the Arab League would take its initiative to the U.N. Security Council and ask for its endorsement.

Earlier Sunday, the ministers extended a much-criticized monitoring mission to Syria for a month, but Saudi Arabia said it was withdrawing its observers.

"My country will withdraw its monitors because the Syrian government did not execute any of the elements of the Arab resolution plan," Prince Saud al-Faisal told fellow Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo.

"We are calling on the international community to bear its responsibility, and that includes our brothers in Islamic states and our friends in Russia, China, Europe and the United States," Saud said, calling for "all possible pressure" to push Syria to adhere to the Arab peace plan.

Saudi Arabia has been one of the harshest Arab critics of the crackdown, It recalled its ambassador from Damascus last year in protest.

Also Sunday, Syrian forces and army defectors clashed in a suburb of the tightly held capital of Damascus — a sign that citizen protests against President Bashar Assad might turn into civil war.

The observer mission is supposed to be the first step toward implementing an Arab League plan to end the Syria crisis. Other points are pulling heavy Syrian weapons out of cities, stopping attacks on protesters, opening talks with the opposition and allowing foreign human rights workers and journalists in.

"There is partial progress in the implementation of the promises," Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said in Cairo about Syria's implementation of the plan. Syria "did not carry out all its promises, although there are some implementation of pledges."

He added that the use of "extreme force" by Syrian forces have led to a reaction by the opposition "in what could lead to civil war."

So far the observer mission has not gone well. Though some credit it with tamping down violence in some places, the Local Coordination Committees activist group said Sunday that 976 people, including 54 children and 28 women, have been killed since the observers began their mission last month.

The U.N. estimates some 5,400 have been killed since it began in March.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Arab League to "maximize" the effectiveness of the mission of the observers in Syria "to stop the killings."

"The deployment of the observers, has been disappointing ... Assad played games with observers," by moving around forces instead of removing them from cities, while the killing continues, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The Arab League faced three options Sunday: ending the mission and giving up its initiative, extending it, or turning the crisis over to the U.N. Security Council, as some opposition groups have urged. There, however, it would face a possible stalemate because of disagreements among permanent members over how far to go in forcing Assad's hand.

The mission's one-month mandate technically expired on Thursday.

The pullout of Assad's security forces from the Damascus suburb of Douma marked the second time in a week that troops have redeployed from an area near the tightly-controlled Syrian capital, an indication that Assad might be losing some control.

Diplomacy has taken on urgency as opponents of Assad's regime and soldiers who switched sides increasingly take up arms and fight back against government forces.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights' head Rami Abdul-Rahman said government troops had pulled back early Sunday to a provincial headquarters and a security agency building in the Damascus suburb of Douma after hours of clashes, although they still controlled the entrances. The clashes broke out after Syrian troops opened fire at a funeral on Saturday.

On Sunday afternoon, the battles resumed between the defectors and troops loyal to Assad, according to the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group. The LCC said that heavy machine gun fire was used in the clashes, and five people were killed.

Abdul-Rahman had no information on casualties from the clashes but said security forces at an entrance checkpoint shot dead one man who was passing by on Sunday. He added that one person was shot dead in a nearby town of Rankous as well as another person in the northwestern province of Idlib.

The LCC said 12 people were killed in Syria Sunday. The LCC and the Observatory reported intense gunfire in the central city of Homs that left at least one person dead.

State-run news agency SANA said gunmen opened fire at the car of an army brigadier general, killing him and another army officers who was in the vehicle.

Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso confirmed that security forces had abandoned Douma.

A video posted by activists on social media showed five masked gunmen, one of them in uniform, who read a statement saying, "the city of Douma has been liberated from Assad's gangs." He warned Syrian troops not to try enter Douma or defectors would "fire rockets at the presidential palace" in Damascus and execute five prisoners they are holding.

The Associated Press could not verify the authenticity of the video.

Also Sunday, state-run SANA, said an estimated 5,255 Syrian prisoners have been released over the past week under an amnesty, raising the total freed since November to more than 9,000. Opposition groups say thousands are still being held.

The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Syria as the bloodshed escalates. The U.S. has long called for Assad to step down, and officials say his regime's demise is inevitable.

Two U.S. Senators plan to introduce a bill to stiffen the sanctions.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York would require President Barack Obama to identify violators of human rights in Syria, call for reform and offer protection to pro-democracy demonstrators. It would also block financial aid and property transactions in the United States involving Syrian leaders involved in the crackdown.