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Syria Rejects Arab League Plan for Unity Government Talks

Qatari Foreign Minister
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jaber al Thani, second right, said yesterday, “We are with the Syrian people, with their will and with their aspirations.” Photographer: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

The Syrian government rejected an Arab League proposal that calls on President Bashar al-Assad to delegate power to a deputy and set up a unity government as a prelude to parliamentary and presidential elections.

The initiative, approved by Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo yesterday, is a violation of the country’s sovereignty, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said, citing an unidentified government official.

“We ask the Syrian regime to leave and hand over power,” Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jaber al Thani said yesterday. “We are with the Syrian people, with their will and with their aspirations.”

The Arab League sent observers to Syria on Dec. 26 to ensure Assad follows through on his pledge to withdraw security forces from cities, release political prisoners and allow anti-government demonstrations. The plan approved yesterday calls for the government and opposition to start a dialogue under the umbrella of the Arab League within two weeks and the formation of a national unity government within two months.

“This confirms that all Arab countries today consider the regime of Bashar al-Assad to be finished and that it must be replaced,” said Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council.

‘Long End Game’

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, said the proposals were the “start of something quite significant.”

“It may be a very long end game but I do believe that they are now working for a post-Assad Syria and a transition for that to start,” Shaikh said in a telephone interview from Doha.

Syria agreed on Dec. 19 to allow Arab League monitors into the country in exchange for the league dropping plans to go to the United Nations Security Council.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Arabi has sent a request to the Syrian government to extend the group’s monitoring mission from Jan. 24 to Feb. 24, the league’s spokesman, Wageeh Maleeha, told reporters today in Cairo.

The government’s killing of protesters has continued during the deployment, according to human rights activists, U.S. and UN officials. A group of 145 Arab organizations, including members of the Syrian opposition, called on the organization on Jan. 18 to withdraw its observers.

Listening Devices

Anwar Malek, a former monitor who quit and backed the call for withdrawal, told Al Arabiya television that the observers found listening devices under their pillows and that he was threatened with online publication of pictures of him taken while in the shower.

Mohammed al-Dabi, head of the Arab League’s monitoring mission in Syria, told a news conference in Cairo today that the mission’s mandate is limited and isn’t aimed at stopping the killing.

He spoke a day after Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told the foreign ministers’ meeting that his country was pulling out its monitors because Syria “has fallen short of complying with any of the elements of the Arab plan,” the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported. Prince Saud urged the international community, including Russia and China, to exert “all possible pressure to convince the Syrian government” to implement the plan.

EU Sanctions

The European Union today added 22 people and eight organizations to its Syria sanctions list.

“The EU will continue its policy of imposing additional measures against the regime, not to the civilian population, as long as repression continues,” it said in a statement.

Assad has repeatedly blamed the unrest on a “foreign conspiracy,” “terrorists” and religious extremists.

The revolt against Assad started in March amid popular movements that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while forcing Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to agree to cede power. The UN estimates that more than 5,000 Syrians have died during the violence, in the greatest challenge to Assad’s rule since he took over from his father in 2000.

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