Syria agrees to accept Arab League observers


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The Independent Online

Syria has "responded positively" to an Arab League request to send observers to the country as part of a peace plan to end the nation's eight-month crisis, the Foreign Ministry said today.

But there appeared to be serious stumbling blocks. Syria demanded that after the protocol is signed the Arab League immediately cancel recent decisions taken against Damascus, including economic sanctions and suspending the country from the League.

Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby swiftly rebuffed Damascus' demand, telling reporters in Cairo that Syria's agreeing to sign the deal will not lead to the immediate lifting of sanctions.

"These sanctions are in force until another decision is adopted by the Arab foreign ministers," he said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem sent a letter Sunday to Elaraby in which he "responded positively" to the League's peace plan, ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said. He added that al-Moallem's message combined some "minor amendments that won't affect the essence of the plan."

But Elaraby said al-Moallem's letter "contains new components which we have not heard of earlier."

He said the new Syrian conditions and demands are being "discussed now with the Arab foreign ministers" and that nothing has been decided yet.

The observers mission would involve an initial team of 30-50 members under the auspices of the Arab League to ensure that Syria is following the Arab plan, calling for the regime to halt its attacks on protesters, pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners and allow journalists and rights groups into the country.

Syria's failure to meet a Nov. 25 deadline to allow in observers drew Arab League sanctions, including a ban on dealings with the country's central bank and a freeze on government assets.

The bloc also imposed a travel ban on 19 Syrian officials, including Assad's younger brother Maher, who is believed to be in command of much of the crackdown, as well as Cabinet ministers, intelligence chiefs and security officers. The list does not include the president himself.

Together with sanctions from the United States, the European Union and Turkey, the Arab League's penalties are expected to inflict significant damage on Syria's economy and may undercut the regime's authority.

Damascus remains defiant, however, and has shown few signs of easing its crackdown, which the UN says has killed more than 4,000 people since mid-March. Activists said security forces killed at least seven people Monday, most of them in the restive central province of Homs.

Over the weekend, the military conducted exercises meant to test "the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression," state-run TV said.

The drill showed Syrian missiles and troops were "ready to defend the nation and deter anyone who dares to endanger its security" and that the missiles hit their test targets with precision, State TV said.

In October, Assad warned the Middle East "will burn" if the West intervenes in Syria and threatened to turn the region into "tens of Afghanistans."

Syria is known to have surface-to-surface missiles such as Scuds, capable of hitting deep inside its archenemy Israel.

Makdissi, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said "the maneuvers were routine and planned earlier."

But the combination of missile tests as well as air and ground troops indicate the maneuvers were of a higher-level than the military's usual annual war games, and appeared to be designed as a warning to the international community not to interfere in the Syrian crisis.

Syrian TV showed a missile being fired, as senior officers followed the event using their binoculars, then a missile hitting the ground creating a thick brown cloud.

State media did not say where the maneuvers where conducted. But Israel's daily Jerusalem Post quoted Israeli army officials as saying the test was conducted Saturday in Syria's northeast and included the firing of a Scud B missile, with a range of 185 miles (300 kilometers), toward the Iraqi border.

Although the US and the European Union have imposed waves of sanctions against Syria in recent months, Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil as they did in Libya.

On top of that, Assad has a number of powerful allies that give him the means to push back against outside pressure, and the international community is aware that intervening in Syria risks touching off a wider Mideast confrontation with Israel and Iran in the mix.

Syria wouldn't have to look far for prime targets to strike, sharing a border with US-backed Israel and Nato-member Turkey. Assad's regime is the closest Arab ally of Iran and also has ties to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and other radical groups, including the militant Palestinian Hamas.

State-run news agency SANA quoted Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha as telling the forces that participated in the maneuvers "to be in full readiness to carry out any orders give to them."