Plea to the West: Syria needs Libya-style intervention

Arab diplomat's call comes as Syrian army defectors attack military base

As violence in Syria intensifies with an attack by anti-government forces on an air defence intelligence complex near Damascus, a senior Arab diplomat in London says Middle Eastern states opposing the Syrian government need West European leadership similar to that seen in the Libyan war.

He said that what was needed was "a team captain" to co-ordinate moves to put pressure on Syria, and only the Europeans could do this. The US is preoccupied by domestic politics and "in the Middle East everybody is driven by ego. How can you have a regional policy when they [local rulers] can't talk to each other?"

The diplomat added that a crucial turning point would come in Syria if the anti-government forces succeeded in establishing an independent enclave like Benghazi in Libya. He thought this was more likely to happen in the north on the Turkish border rather than around Deraa, north of the Jordanian frontier, where the protests began. The existence of such an enclave would raise the possibility of setting up a no-fly zone.

The crisis has reached a crucial stage inside and outside Syria. Inside the country, the Syrian opposition claim that fighting has escalated with 71 people killed on Monday, including 34 government soldiers and that army defectors using automatic rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers attacked an air force intelligence base near Damascus yesterday. The attack on the Harasta facility is the first such reported assault on a major security facility in the eight-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which purports to be a band of army deserters set on ending President Assad's rule. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Ammar al-Wawi, a commander in the FSA, said: "Our only goal is to liberate Syria from Bashar Assad's regime. To put it simply, we carry out military operations against anyone who targets the peaceful protesters."

Their claims cannot be independently verified because the government has excluded most foreign journalists.

President Assad is increasingly isolated as the 22-member Arab League yesterday confirmed the suspension of Syria from the organization and gave its government three days to halt the violence and accept an observer mission or face economic sanctions

The protocol agreed upon yesterday calls for an observer mission of 30-50 members under the auspices of the Arab League to ensure that Syria is following the Arab plan, an end to attacks on protesters, pull tanks and armoured vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners, and allow journalists and rights groups into the country.

The extent of Syria's isolation is underlined by the presence at the meeting of the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for a meeting on Arab-Turkish ties. He said: "We denounce the mass murder of the Syrian people. It is all of our responsibility to end the bloodshed in Syria."

Of Syria's neighbours, Turkey is the one best placed to move decisively against the government in Damascus. It could declare a wide buffer zone on the Turkish-Syrian frontier which would become an enclave for the opposition.

In another move last night France withdrew its ambassador. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said: "The vice is tightening" around the Syrian regime. Middle East leaders are concluding that President Assad cannot survive for, at most, more than a year or two because the loyal units in his army will be worn down by constant use in suppressing protests.

But the difficulty facing Middle East states eager to see the end of the Baathist government in Damascus is that the Syrian opposition is disunited and different groups are of uncertain strength.

Despite this, there is a growing consensus – that may prove self-fulfilling – among states in the Middle East that the regime will be overthrown. The support of Russia and China may prove to be largely rhetorical and Iranian leaders have shifted away from publicly claiming that the survival of Iran depends on the present Syrian government staying in power.

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