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.
Security forces in Bahrain have used tear gas and armoured vehicles to drive back hundreds of protesters advancing toward a heavily guarded square that was once the center of pro-reform demonstrations in the Gulf nation.
Witnesses said hundreds of demonstrators marched on Pearl Square in Bahrain’s capital Manama after a funeral procession on Friday morning for the 78-year-old father of an opposition leader.
Ali Hasan al-Dehi died on Thursday morning after reportedly having been severely beaten by riot police during a protest the day before in the village of Dehi. Opposition groups claim he died as a result of his alleged treatment by police.
Al-Dehi was the father of Hussein al-Dehi, who is the deputy-head of the main Shia opposition group. Authorities said he died of natural causes.
Video and images uploaded on social media websites on Friday appeared to show police cars driving at protesters in several locations. Al Jazeera was unable to verify the authenticity of the footage.
There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said the government had blocked roads to try to prevent people from attending the funeral ceremony.
At least thirteen people are reported killed in the latest clashes across Syria as the government called on armed opposition members to turn themselves in within one week to qualify for an amnesty.
As massive anti-government demonstrations took place across the country following Friday prayers, two civilians were reported to have been killed after security forces opened fire on protesters in the district of Kanaker in the capital, Damascus.
Two others were reported killed near the Syria-Jordan border. They were shot at while trying to cross the border and flee the country, according to reports.
Four deaths in the Bab Amro area of Homs came a day after 22 civilians were reportedly killed in the military crackdown on protesters there.
“Syrian security forces continue to shell and launch attacks on Bab Amro district,” said Al Jazeera’s Nisreen El-Shamayleh, reporting from neighbouring Jordan.
“At least 10 people were injured, but ambulances were prevented from entering the area to reach the wounded. And we are hearing reports that planes are still hovering over the district.”
The locations of the seven other reported deaths was unclear.
In the port city of Latakia, an activist said he counted 13 security pick-up trucks surrounding the main Arsalan mosque.
He said at least three protesters were wounded by security forces firing in front of the Bazar mosque in the centre of the city.
“They were hit and taken by the security forces. In front of every mosque in Latakia there are several hundred security personnel touting either batons, handguns, or automatic rifles,” he said.
The continued violence on Friday came as Syria’s government announced details of a week-long amnesty period, starting from, Saturday.
“The interior ministry calls on citizens who carried weapons, sold them, delivered them, transported them or funded buying them, and did not commit crimes, to hand themselves into the nearest police station,” state television said on Friday.
“The interior ministry assures that those who turn themselves in … will then be freed immediately and it will be considered as a general amnesty,” it said.
Friday’s renewed violence appeared to contravene a mediation deal agreed between Damascus and the Arab League on Wednesday which had called for Syrian troops to end their presence in cities and residential areas.
The agreement, which also called for the release of all political prisoners and monitoring of the situation inside Syria by league officials and foreign media, was announced at an emergency meeting in Cairo, where the regional body gathered to discuss plans to ease the violence and end the unrest in Syria.
The peace deal “emphasised the need for the immediate, full and exact implementation of the articles in the plan”, but members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella opposition group, have voiced serious scepticism over the government’s willingness and sincerity to put the deal into effect.
“There is no indication on the ground that the Syrian government has at all started implementing the Arab League proposal to end the unrest,” said our correspondent.
Syrian authorities have banned most independent media from the country, making it hard to verify reports of violence.
Syria and the Arab League have reached an agreement on a plan aimed at finding a solution to the months-long unrest in the country, state media reported Tuesday.
An official announcement will take place Wednesday at the Arab League’s headquarters in Cairo, according to Syrian state television and the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
The Arab League has called on Syria’s government to end all violence against citizens, remove tanks and military vehicles from the streets of the country and release political prisoners, an official with the Arab organization said Monday.
The Arab countries made the proposal to Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, on Sunday in a meeting in Doha, Qatar. The Arab League also proposed a dialogue between Syrian officials and opposition members in Cairo starting Wednesday.
The proposals included a time frame for compliance, the Arab League official said.
The Syrian delegation left Qatar without responding to the Arab League letter, according to the Qatari national news agency.
More than 3,000 people have died in Syria since unrest broke out in mid-March, according to the United Nations. CNN cannot independently confirm individual accounts of violence because Syria’s government restricts the activity of journalists.
In early October, China and Russia teamed up to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Syrian response to the protests and called for an immediate end to the government clampdown on the opposition.
Meanwhile, Syrians aiming to write a new constitution for the strife-torn country met Monday for the first time, according to state news reports.
President Bashar al-Assad last month announced the formation of a committee to draft a new constitution within four months, SANA reported at the time. The October 15 announcement was one of several moves the government has made to defuse protests, but they have not calmed the situation within the country.
Are you planning to teach on Arab communities, Islam, or the Middle East? Explore these resources for teachers, provided by academic institutions and organizations.
- Harvard University, Center for Middle Eastern Studies – “Teaching Resources” : Includes information about the Center’s lending library, online modules, lesson plans, curriculum guides, publications, fact sheets, PowerPoint guides, and other presentations.
- University of Arizona, Center for Middle Eastern Studies – “Lesson Plans” : Information on lesson plans, educators workshops, culture kits, and a children’s page.
- Consortium for Educational Resources on Islamic Studies – “Maktaba” : K-16 website hosted at the University of Pittsburgh, including a lending library of artifacts, teaching materials and curriculum; books, films in English or Arabic, online videos of guest lectures, and informative links.
- Library of Congress – “Middle East and North Africa” : Compilation of websites including non-governmental, academic, and media links regarding Middle Eastern and Islamic communities.
- University of Pennsylvania, Middle East Studies Center – “Teacher Resources” : Includes websites, handouts, resources on Islam, information on current events and diverse topics including embassy information, Turkish and Iranian resources, and a PowerPoint about the war in Iraq.
- The Ohio State University, Middle East Studies Center – “Teacher Resources” : Topics include general resources, Arab world, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Islam, Middle Eastern literature and diverse view for looking at global issues.
Today marks Tunisia’s first election following the ousting of former President Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali. Visit these sites for information on who has gone to the polls, and what Tunisians are saying about voting in their first democratic election:
- Tunisia Election Live Blog, The Guardian
- Tunisia elections end on high optimistic note, Gulf News
- Tunisians flock to voting stations for first taste of democracy in 50 years, The Guardian
- Al-Nahda claims victory in Tunsia poll, Al-Jazeera
- Tunisians Vote in Free Elections, NPR
- Tunisian Elections – Live Updates, Tunisia Live
The Obama administration pulled its ambassador out of Syria over the weekend over increasing security fears, saying that the recent string of incidents of intimidation and threats of violence made it unsafe for Robert Ford to remain in the country.
“We hope that the Syrian regime will end its incitement campaign against Ambassador Ford,” a spokesman for the State Department said, according to the Associated Press. “At this point, we can’t say when he will return to Syria.”
Ford attracted the ire of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after he contacted protesters involved in the ongoing, seven-month-old grassroots movement in Syria seeking the overthrow of the 41-year-old Assad regime. There were no casualties in the attacks by pro-Assad forces on Ford’s office and home in Syria, but sources in the country told Reuters that state media coverage of Ford has been growing increasingly incisive, increasing U.S. concerns for Ford’s safety.
Ford also traveled over the summer to anti-Assad strongholds in various regions of Syria, ignoring a ban on Western diplomats traveling outside the capital city of Damascus.
From 2005 to 2009, the U.S. had no ambassador to Syria. President Obama sent Ford in January 2009 to work with President Bashar al-Assad to scale back Syria’s alliance with Iran and backing of militant groups. However, the diplomatic relationship soon soured again after Assad ignored international calls for reform in response to the Syrian branch of the Arab Spring uprisings calling for an end to Assad’s police state.
Instead, Assad used military force to crackdown on pro-Democracy protesters. International advocacy groups have since reported a death toll of up to 1,800 people and thousands of cases of torture in state-run detention centers.