As Arab League Suspension Looms, Syria Faces New AssaultPosted: November 16, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — As regional diplomacy and maneuvering intensified, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria faced challenges on two fronts Wednesday, with army defectors reported to have attacked an intelligence headquarters near Damascus and Arab foreign ministers meeting to endorse his country’s suspension from the Arab League.
News reports said the attack on a large air force intelligence complex near Damascus, the capital, was the first on such a major facility since Syria’s uprising began in March. The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, was quoted as saying defectors used shoulder-mounted anti-tank rockets and other weapons to attack the facility.
Reuters quoted anti-Assad activists as saying a gunfight erupted after the attack as helicopters circled the area.
The reported assault came hours before Arab foreign ministers gathered in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, to formalize a decision by the 22-member Arab League last weekend to suspend Syria, which said it would boycott Wednesday’s meeting.
The official Sana news agency in Damascus said the decision was taken in response to statements by Moroccan officials, who were quoted earlier as saying “Syrian colleagues” were welcome to attend the gathering.
Arab foreign ministers are to hold two sets of meetings in Rabat on Wednesday, one related to the Arab League, and the other grouping Arab states and Turkey, a central player in the growing crisis. Those moves were accompanied by signs that the opposition is gaining diplomatic ground.
On Tuesday, representatives of the Russian government and the Arab League met with political opponents of Mr. Assad, while Turkey, once a close ally of Syria, scrapped a plan to explore for oil in Syria and threatened to curtail electricity it sells to Damascus.
The developments came after what some activists portrayed as one of the bloodiest episodes in the eight-month uprising. Reports were conflicting, but one human rights group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said that more than 71 people were killed Monday, including 34 soldiers engaged in clashes with army defectors. If true, the deaths of the soldiers would constitute one of the highest tolls since defectors began carrying out attacks against government troops.
But unlike past episodes, when the Syrian government publicized the deaths of soldiers and security forces, official Syrian news outlets carried no reports about the clashes.
The Local Coordination Committees said it could not corroborate the Syrian Observatory’s account of the military casualties, though it also called Monday one of the uprising’s bloodier days, with at least 51 civilians killed. “We don’t have any confirmation of what they’re claiming,” said Omar Idlibi, a spokesman for the committees.
Reports of the violence emerged on Tuesday as the Syrian government announced that it had released 1,180 prisoners, in what appeared to be an effort to show flexibility and sincerity only hours before the Arab League foreign ministers were set to meet in Rabat. A terse official announcement of the prisoners’ release said only that the freed prisoners had been “involved in recent events” and had not committed murder.
Rights activists confirmed that the freed prisoners included Kamal Labwani, a prominent lawyer halfway through a 15-year sentence for having insulted Mr. Assad. Reuters quoted his daughter as saying that Mr. Labwani had no idea that Syria was in the throes of an upheaval, having been denied outside contact.
The uprising in Syria, one of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East, has become the latest focal point among the Arab revolts that have toppled autocrats in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Faced with Mr. Assad’s intransigence, the normally placid Arab League voted last weekend to suspend Syria from the group. On Monday King Abdullah II of Jordan called on him to step down. King Abdullah is the first leader from one of Syria’s Arab neighbors to go that far.
On Tuesday, officials of the Foreign Ministry of Russia, which has been one of Mr. Assad’s steadiest remaining allies, met with emissaries of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group. The group said that it failed to gain Russia’s support for anything more than a dialogue with Mr. Assad.
“We want to negotiate the steps of how to change the regime, and that’s not acceptable for the Russians,” said Sammir Nachar, a member of the council.
Nonetheless, activists said the meeting itself was a possible sign of Russia’s impatience with the direction of the Syrian conflict.
At the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League, the group held meetings with other representatives of the Syrian National Council and asked them to devise plans for a transition of power.
In Turkey, where the government’s relationship with Syria has been badly strained by Mr. Assad’s repression, officials said that plans for a Turkish oil company to explore for new deposits in Syria had been canceled, and that Turkish power lines into Syria might be severed. “Right now we are supplying electricity there,” the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told reporters in Ankara, the capital. “If this course continues, we may have to review all of these decisions.”
While Turkey supplies only a small percentage of Syria’s power needs, the threats underscored how badly Syria’s relationship had deteriorated with Turkey, its top trading partner.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has castigated Mr. Assad before, said Turkey no longer had confidence in the Syrian government. Mr. Erdogan said he hoped that Syria, “now on a knife edge, does not enter this road of no return, which leads to the edge of the abyss.”
Human rights groups calculated Monday’s death toll, raised from an initial report of 28, with the aid of telephone interviews and messages from witnesses in Syria, which has restricted foreign press coverage. The new figures make Monday the deadliest day in the country since Oct. 29, when 40 people were killed.
But the circumstances of the deaths remained unclear. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said defectors had clashed with soldiers in the southern province of Dara’a. It said 12 defectors, 24 people it identified as civilians and 34 government soldiers had been killed. The group called the confrontations the biggest since the uprising began in the same province.
Mr. Idlibi of the Local Coordination Committees said that 28 civilians had been killed in Dara’a, and that defections had taken place there. But the group had no details on the nature of the clashes.
The United Nations said this month that at least 3,500 people had been killed in Syria since the uprising started in March. The government disputes the death toll and has blamed armed groups for the unrest.