Arab foreign ministers slowly convene for ‘urgent’ meeting on Gaza

AFP reports: Arab foreign ministers are to meet in Cairo on Monday to discuss the escalating conflict between Hamas militants in Gaza and Israel which has already killed more than 120 Palestinians, a diplomat said.

Kuwait, which holds the rotating leadership of the Arab League headquartered in the Egyptian capital, had demanded the “urgent” meeting, the diplomat told AFP on Saturday.

There has been no coordinated Arab response to the conflict which erupted on Tuesday when Israel launched waves of air strikes against Gaza aimed at halting rocket fire across the border.

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Assad expresses respect for the West and contempt for Arabs and Hamas

The Lebanese Al-Akhbar English interviewed Bashar al-Assad:

Assad is bitter. “Not one Arab official has contacted us with a plan for mediation or for an Arab solution,” he says. The Arabs, he says, were always only an echo of their Western “masters,” if not worse.

The Syrian president adds that the West, despite all its flaws, “Always dealt with us more honorably than some Arabs.” Kofi Annan was honest and resigned, he remarks, while his Arab aides were not.

The conversation moves to Hamas when the president is asked about the reports regarding Meshaal’s visit to Tehran, and whether Damascus, specifically the presidential palace, would be his next stop. But Assad is keen on clarifying everything in this regard, ending all equivocation.

First, Assad says that the Muslim Brotherhood, for 80 years, has been known for its opportunism and betrayal, but stresses that Damascus did not treat Hamas in the beginning as being part of the international Islamist organization. “The Europeans would come to us and ask what Hamas was doing here, and we would say that it was a resistance movement,” the Syrian president says, adding that only that capacity made Syria welcome and sponsor Hamas.

Assad says, “When the crisis began, [Hamas officials] claimed that they gave us advice. This is a lie. Who are they to give Syria advice? Then they said that we asked for their help, which is also not true. What business do they have in internal Syrian affairs?”

Later, the president of the World Federation of Muslim Scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, made his insulting statements about Syria. Assad says, “Yes, we demanded that they take a stance. A while later, they came and said that they spoke with Qaradawi. We said that those who want to take a political stance should do so publicly. What value does a stance have if taken in closed rooms?”

Estrangement between Hamas and the Syrian regime ensued. Assad holds that Hamas ultimately decided to abandon resistance and to fully merge with the Muslim Brotherhood. He adds, “This was not the first time they had betrayed us. It happened before in 2007 and 2009. Their history is one of treachery and betrayal.” Assad then wished “someone would persuade them to return to being a resistance movement,” but says that he doubts this will happen. “Hamas has sided against Syria from day one. They have made their choice,” he adds.

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Video: Arab League meeting in Iraq shows deep divisions over Syria

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Syria’s Bashar Assad says he won’t step aside

Atlantic Wire: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivered a defiant televised address on Tuesday saying that he will not step down and will not institute new democratic reforms, insisting that unrest in his country is the work of a foreign conspiracy. According to Al-Jazeera’s translations, Assad said that there are no real revolutionaries in his country, just terrorists carrying out a plan that was devised “tens of years ago” to divide Arab countries. Assad also claimed that he still had the support of Syrians and he will only leave office when it is “by the will of the people.”

During the rare 90 minute address, his first speech to the nation in more than six months, Assad also criticized other Arab League governments, which suspended Syria from the League and sent a team of monitors to attempt to oversee a peace plan. Assad says that Arab monarchies telling Syria how to institute democracy is “like a doctor who smokes and recommends to his patient to give up smoking while he, the doctor, has a cigarette in his mouth.”

Assad continued to insist that demonstrations taking place in Syria are merely the work of “terrorists” and “thieves” and that he will continue to hit them with “an iron fist.” However, he claims that “there are no orders for anyone to open fire on any citizen,” despite reports by the U.N. and opposition leaders that well over 5,000 Syrians have been killed by the military since the unrest began last March.

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Syria’s protesters are on their own

Brian Whitaker writes: The Arab League’s much-heralded meeting to review the “progress” of its monitoring operation in Syria came and went on Sunday with barely a whimper. A few more monitors will be sent but unless Syria agrees to an extension, which seems unlikely, the mission will end on 19 January with the presentation of a report.

It’s difficult to see where the league can go from there, except by admitting failure and passing its files to the United Nations.

When the Assad regime accepted the league’s peace plan last month, after weeks of prevarication, it agreed to end the violence against peaceful protests, withdraw the army from towns, release political prisoners and start a dialogue with the opposition. The ill-prepared monitors were then sent in to assess its compliance.

The regime’s insincerity about this was never in much doubt. Apart from some token gestures it has made no real effort to comply, and the killings and arrests have continued. At the same time, though, the presence of monitors does seem to have emboldened the protesters and helped to keep Syria in the headlines.

Despite all that, the failure of the Arab League’s initiative may be preferable to its success. Had there been more progress, the result would have been protracted talks about political “reform”.

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Inside Syria: Has the Arab League failed in Syria?

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In Syria, another Friday, another Damascus bomb

The Daily Telegraph reports: At least 25 people were reportedly killed or wounded after a suicide bomber blew himself up in central Damascus on Friday, the second such attack on the Syrian capital in a fortnight.

The bomb was detonated at a set of traffic lights in the historic district of al-Midan, just south of Damascus’s ancient walled city, state television reported.

Video footage indicated that a police bus had borne the brunt of the blast. Reduced to a shell, its seats were soaked in blood and covered in shards of glass.

The television station claimed that the majority of the casualties were civilians, saying that the attack took place “in a heavily populated working-class neighbourhood near a school”. More than 46 people were also wounded in the attack, it added.

There was no independent confirmation of the number of fatalities. The regime was quick to blame the attack on “terrorists”, which it says have been at the forefront of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that erupted last March.

The attack came exactly a fortnight after two booby-trapped cars, allegedly driven by suicide bombers, exploded in front of government intelligence buildings in Damascus on December 23rd, killing 44 people.

Friday’s attack, like the one before it, coincided with mass protests called to demand Mr Assad’s overthrow and opposition officials claimed the blast was planned by the government to distract attention from the demonstrations.

Protests after noon prayers on Fridays have traditionally drawn the largest turnouts of the uprising, and organisers said they expected hundreds of thousands to take to the streets.

Once again one needs to ask: whose interests appear to be getting served by these bombings?

The regime claims it is not being challenged by a popular uprising but by “terrorists” — low and behold we get a universally recognized demonstration of terrorists at work. Not only that, but both performances have occurred during the period in which the audience includes Arab League observers present in Syria.

And since Friday is the easiest day on which mass protests can be organized, how could bombings on that day possibly serve the interests of the protesters? The bombers seem to be more interested in providing protesters with an incentive to avoid the streets and stay at home.

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Inside Syria – Is the Arab League mission doomed to fail?

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Arab body says monitors should quit Syria promptly

Reuters reports: An Arab League advisory body called on Sunday for the immediate withdrawal of the organization’s monitoring mission in Syria, saying it was allowing Damascus to cover up continued violence and abuses.

The Arab League has sent a small team to Syria to check whether President Bashar al-Assad is keeping his promise to end a crackdown on a nine-month uprising against his rule.

The observer mission has already stirred controversy. Rights groups have reported continued deaths in clashes and tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to show the observers the extent of their anger.

The Sudanese head of the mission also infuriated some observers by suggesting he was reassured by first impressions of Homs, one of the main centers of unrest.

The Arab Parliament, an 88-member advisory committee of delegates from each of the League’s member states, on Sunday said the violence was continuing to claim many victims.

“For this to happen in the presence of Arab monitors has roused the anger of Arab people and negates the purpose of sending a fact-finding mission,” the organization’s chairman Ali al-Salem al-Dekbas said.

“This is giving the Syrian regime an Arab cover for continuing its inhumane actions under the eyes and ears of the Arab League,” he said.

The Arab Parliament was the first body to recommend freezing Syria’s membership in the organization in response to Assad’s crackdown.

An Arab League official, commenting on the parliament’s statement, told Reuters it was too early to judge the mission’s success, saying it was scheduled to remain in Syria for a month and that more monitors were on their way.

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Activists hold mass rallies across Syria

The New York Times reports: Tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of people defied a continuing government crackdown to fill the streets of several Syrian cities on Friday, intent on showing visiting monitors from the Arab League the extent of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

As thousands marched in Idlib, Homs, Hama and in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, violence flared at several of the rallies. By day’s end, activist groups said that more than two dozen people had been killed by security forces. The large crowds, while not unprecedented, underscored the resilience of the protest movement despite United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have died since opposition to the government galvanized in March.

A protester in Dara’a, who reported huge demonstrations, said: “We want to show the Arabs and the world that we are peaceful protesters, not criminals or armed gangs. The coming days and weeks will prove our statements, not the regime’s story.”

The government’s supporters also held rallies, according to witnesses and the Syrian state news agency, SANA, which posted photographs of large gatherings in Aleppo and Damascus. The news agency said the protesters were “demanding the Arab League observer mission to be credible and professional in conveying the facts of what the terrorist groups are perpetrating.”

The arrival of the observers has been one of the most closely watched developments in the nine-month-old Syrian conflict. For days this week, their role was heavily criticized by opposition activists, who complained about the paltry number of observers and about the mission’s leader, a former Sudanese general. The military intelligence branch he oversaw has been accused of crimes by human rights groups.

Many feared the mission was another stalling tactic by the government. Even so, everyone seemed to want a minute of the observers’ time.

By week’s end, after four hectic days of visits, the observers seemed to have ushered in a new phase of the conflict, or at the very least, altered its dynamic.

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Arab League approves Syria sanctions

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Armed groups on the rise is Syria as fear of civil war grows

The New York Times reports: For the second day in a row, deserters from the Syrian Army carried out attacks on symbols of the Assad government’s centers of power, targeting the youth offices of the ruling Baath Party on Thursday after firing rocket-propelled grenades on a military intelligence base on Wednesday, activists said.

The attacks, along with fraying relations among Syria’s religious communities, growing international pressure and a relentless crackdown, prompted Russia, Syria’s closest ally, to say that the country was moving closer to a civil war.

The attacks may have been more symbolic than effective, but could mark the increased ability of a growing number of defectors to publicize their exploits. Attacks on government installations — in the southern town of Dara’a and the central city of Homs, for instance — have been reported since the start of the uprising.

The attacks themselves paled before the bloodiest episodes of Syria’s last uprising in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then, insurgents stormed the office of the Aleppo Artillery School, killing 32 cadets. It was unclear whether anyone was killed or wounded in these attacks, but the constituency of armed strikes and the bold choice of targets has heightened the profile of Syria’s armed insurgency.

The Syrian government did not mention either attack, which activists reported, citing the accounts of local residents. But even without a firm picture of any damage, the attacks were, at a minimum, indicative of determination on the part of military defectors in the face of a crackdown that the United Nations says has killed more than 3,500 people.

Tony Karon writes: [While] the regime is unable to crush the uprising, the opposition still appears to lack the power to topple the regime. The core of Assad’s military remains intact, and willing to carry out the regime’s plan to shoot its way out of the crisis. In the major cities, much of the Sunni urban middle class has remained on the sidelines, while Assad maintains a substantial support base primarily among Syria’s Allawite and Christian minorities, many of whom accept the regime’s portrayal of the opposition as a sectarian Sunni lynch mob.

To the extent that Assad’s repression has pushed the opposition towards an increasingly militarized response, that actually reinforces the regime’s narrative that Syria is in the throes of a sectarian civil war, with Assad casting himself as the protector of Allawites and Christians. On that basis, the regime also appears to have divided the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen — countries with significant Shi’ite populations, and in the case of Iraq, substantial Iranian influence — having declined to back the original Arab League suspension of Syria. Also, many key leaders of Christian communities in other Arab countries appear to have come out in support of Assad.

Assad can also count on solid backing from Russia, for whom Assad’s Syria is a key geostrategic asset because it provides the Russian navy’s only Mediterranean port, and also from Iran, for which Syria has been the key Arab ally.

But other regional players are raising their pressure on Damascus. The Arab League, with Turkey in attendance, on Wednesday gave Syria three (more) days to act on a deal it claimed to have accepted two weeks ago — but ignored on the ground — to halt repression, withdraw its army from restive towns, and accept Arab monitors. The League suspended Syria’s membership, and sanctions should Damascus fail to comply. Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reported that last-minute diplomacy by Russia and Iran averted harsher and more immediate measures by the League.

Turkey had a more menacing message ahead of the summit, with officials warning that Syria would “pay a heavy price” for continue killing of its “oppressed people”, and threatening to cut off electrical supplies following an attack on its embassy in Damascus by a pro-Assad mob. Officials in Ankara have begun to speak openly about creating a “buffer zone” inside Syria where it could protect refugees from the crackdown without having to admit them to Turkish territory. That, of course, would mean sending Turkish troops into Syria, and might presage a territorial breakup of Syria into rebel- and regime-controlled areas. But Turkey is waiting for international authorization to take such a step. “It seems out of the question for us to do that on our own,” said an adviser to President Abdullah Gul.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once counted Assad as a personal friend, is now sending a message that the Syrian leader can’t be trusted. “No one any longer expects [Assad’s regime] to meet the expectations of the people and of the international community,” he said Tuesday. “Our wish is that the Assad regime, which is now on a knife edge, does not enter this road of no return, which leads to the edge of the abyss.”

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