Arab League wants U.N. peacekeepers in Syria

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CAIRO (AP) — The Arab League will call Sunday for the U.N. Security Council to create a joint peacekeeping force for Syria, the latest effort by the regional group to end the 11-month old crisis that has killed more than 5,000 people.

The new effort is spelled out in a draft resolution obtained by the Associated Press and expected to be adopted by league foreign ministers meeting in Cairo. However, Syria is unlikely to accept a joint U.N.-Arab League peacekeeping force.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal conveyed the league’s frustration with Syria by telling delegates it was no longer appropriate for the league to stand by and watch the bloodshed in Syria.

“Until when will we remain spectators?” he said. “It is a disgrace for us as Muslims and Arabs to accept” the bloodshed in Syria, he said.

The Arab League has been at the forefront of regional efforts to end 11 months of bloodshed in Syria. The group put forward a plan that President Bashar Assad agreed to in December, then sent in monitors to check whether the Syrian regime was complying. But when it became clear that Mr. Assad’s regime was flouting the terms of the agreement and killings went on, the league pulled the observers out last month.

The draft resolution calls for an immediate cease-fire in Syria and demands regime forces lift the siege on neighborhoods and villages and pull troops and their heavy weapons back to their barracks.

It urges Syrian opposition groups to unite ahead of a Feb. 24 meeting in Tunisia of the “Friends of Syria” group, which includes the United States, its European allies and Arab nations working to end the uprising against Mr. Assad’s authoritarian rule.

The creation of the group came after last weekend’s veto in the Security Council by Russia and China of a Western-Arab draft resolution that would have pressured Mr. Assad to step down. That resolution also would have demanded that Mr. Assad halt the crackdown on dissent and implement the Arab League peace plan, which calls for him to hand over power to his vice president and allow creation of a unity government to clear the way for elections.

The league resolution also wants to provide the opposition groups with political and material support. It calls for a halt to all diplomatic contacts with Syria and for referring officials responsible for crimes against the Syrian people to international criminal tribunals. It urges a tightening of trade sanctions previously adopted by the league but not been fully implemented.

The group, meeting in Cairo, also was considering a proposal to expel Syrian ambassadors from Arab capitals.

The league officials said the group also would call on Syrian opposition groups to close ranks and unite under one umbrella, a move that they said would place more pressure on the Assad regime.

Washington piled more pressure on Syria.

President Obama’s chief of staff, Jacob Lew, said it was only a matter of time before Mr. Assad’s regime collapsed.

“The brutality of the Assad regime is unacceptable and has to end,” he told “Fox News Sunday.” The U.S. is pursuing “all avenues that we can” and “there is no question that this regime will come to an end. The only question is when,” he said.

Late Saturday, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri threw the terror network’s support behind Syrian rebels trying to topple Mr. Assad, raising fears that Islamic extremists are exploiting the uprising that began peacefully but is quickly transforming into an armed insurgency. The regime long has blamed terrorists for the revolt, and al Qaeda’s endorsement creates new difficulties for Western and Arab states trying to figure out a way to help force Mr. Assad out of power.

“The time has come for a decisive action to stop the bloodshed suffered by the Syrian people since the start of last year,” Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told the Arab foreign ministers. “We must move quickly in all directions … to end the cycle of violence in Syria.”

Foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain — also are proposing the expulsion of Syrian ambassadors from all Arab League nations during the meeting in Cairo. The GCC ministers also proposed that Arab nations withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus, according to the officials.

The six nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been campaigning for a tougher stand against Mr. Assad’s regime and may offer formal recognition of the National Syrian Council, the largest of Syria’s opposition groups, at Sunday’s meeting.

Mr. Assad’s regime has pursued a harsh crackdown against the uprising since it began in March. The United Nations estimates that 5,400 people have been killed since March, but that figure is from January, when the world body stopped counting because the chaos in Syria has made it all but impossible to check the figures. Hundreds are reported to have been killed since.

Arab League officials said Mr. Elaraby has accepted the resignation of Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Al-Dabi, the head of the Syrian observer mission, and nominated former Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Illah al-Khatib as the new envoy. A decision on Mr. al-Khatib’s nomination would be made later in the day by Arab foreign ministers meeting in the Egyptian capital.

There was no word on the reasons behind Gen. Al-Dabi’s resignation, but the Sudanese general was harshly criticized for his management of the monitors mission, which was perceived by the Syrian opposition and many protesters to have provided a cover for the regime’s continued crackdown.

Gen. Al-Dabi also was criticized for being a longtime aide of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, himself indicted by The Hague-based International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Sudan’s western Darfur region, where a revolt against the Khartoum government began in 2003 but petered out about five years later.

“The new mission must be totally different from the previous one,” Mr. Elaraby told the foreign ministers as he proposed a joint Arab League-U.N. mission to Syria. “The previous experience has shown that there can be no restoration of security without a political vision.”

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and also because the proposals have not yet been adopted.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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