Syria faced Western demands to rein in its security forces yesterday after they killed 40 civilians and scores of army deserters, according to activists, the very day it agreed to Arab observers.
Monday’s deal with the Arab League came after weeks of prevarication and failed to convince either the opposition or Western governments, which have been pushing for tough UN action to punish the regime’s deadly protest crackdown.
The opposition Syrian National Council charged that Damascus’ acceptance of the observer mission intended to oversee implementation of a plan to end nine months of bloodshed was merely a “ploy” to head off a threat by the pan-Arab bloc to go to the UN Security Council.
Western delegations said the observer deal would be taken into account in discussions under way in the council on a draft resolution on the crisis, but said Syria would be judged by its actions and not by its words.
“It’s all about implementation,” British UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said after the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning human rights abuses during the crackdown which the world body says has left more than 5,000 people dead.
The Arab League said an advance team of observers from Arab countries would head to Damascus within 72 hours, and the mission would last for a renewable initial period of a month.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem pledged his government’s full cooperation with the observer mission and expressed hope the bloc would lift sweeping sanctions it imposed on Nov. 27 after an ultimatum to admit the team was not honored.
At a joint news conference in Cairo with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Maqdad, who signed the accord, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said an advance team of observers would go to Damascus “within two or three days.”
The plan calls for a complete halt to the violence, releasing detainees and the military’s complete withdrawal from towns and residential zones. Syria must also hold talks with the opposition under the league’s auspices.
Germany yesterday said the test of Syria’s willingness to resolve the crisis lay in its actions on the ground.
“Violence must immediately end, the military withdraw, political prisoners be released and unhindered humanitarian access be granted. These are important conditions for a peaceful change in Syria,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
There was no sign of the bloodshed easing on Monday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said between 60 and 70 army deserters were gunned down as they fled their posts in Idlib Province in the northwest close to the border with Turkey, while 40 civilians were killed elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a law took effect yesterday, imposing the death penalty on anyone arming “terrorists,” state media said.
“The law provides for the death penalty for anyone providing weapons or helping to provide weapons intended for the carrying out of terrorist acts,” the official SANA news agency said.
Anyone found guilty of weapons smuggling would be handed sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment. The government claims terrorists are behind the nine-month uprising.
Additional reporting by AP