Arab League urged to push for UN safe areas for Syria rebels

By: Christine Marlow

The Arab League must acknowledge the failure of its observer mission to Syria and press instead for a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing a no-fly zone to create safe areas for the rebels, the main Syrian opposition leader said Thursday.

Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the Syrian National Council, told The Daily Telegraph that any international military operation could be conducted on a much more limited scale than in Libya and need not necessarily be led by Nato.

The Arab League is facing a growing backlash for the perceived ineffectiveness of a contingent of monitors it has sent to Syria to observe the regime’s compliance with a regional peace plan.

Demonstrators protesting against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad wait for the arrival of Arab League observers in Deir Balaba near Homs January 1, 2012.

President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces have been accused of killing hundreds of civilian protesters since the observers arrived, leading to allegations that the mission has achieved nothing except to allow the regime to stall for time.

Pressure on the Arab League to take sterner action is only likely to grow after an international activist group, Avaaz, yesterday alleged that 617 people had been tortured to death in police detention since the uprising against Mr Assad began last March.

Mr Ghalioun, who has made his home in Paris after more than four decades in exile, said he believed the Arab League should still lead the international response to the Syrian crisis, but that the time had come to prove that it was serious in challenging Mr Assad.

“We are leading the Arab League to reaching the position that they have failed in protecting people in Syria,” he said. “But we still want the Arab League to make the calls and take the initiative, so we are pushing them to call for a UN Security Council resolution.”

Arab League ministers are due to meet in the Egyptian capital Cairo on Saturday to decide whether or not to allow the observer mission to continue.

Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, the Qatari prime minister who leads the league’s Syria steering committee, acknowledged yesterday that the observer mission had made “mistakes” but there were growing signs that the monitors would be given a reprieve.

Although the league has threatened to refer Syria to the Security Council if Mr Assad is shown not to have ended the violence against his own people, it is far from clear whether it has the collective will to do so.

And while a resolution with Arab backing would make it harder for Russia and China to continue backing Syria at the council, there are also doubts whether Western powers have the appetite to do anything more than impose sanctions against Damascus.

Mr Ghalioun insisted that the opposition only needed limited military assistance and called for the creation of a “safe zone” in and around the restive province of Idlib, close to the Turkish border, where the rebel Free Syrian Army has its headquarters.

Although such a haven would require protection from the skies, a mission on the scale of the Nato-led intervention in Libya need not be undertaken, he claimed.

“We don’t have to destroy all the Syrian air force,” he said. “You only need to secure a specific zone and this can be done without damaging the whole defences of the country.

“We believe that a safe zone will encourage battalions and armies of the regime to defect and take the side of the revolution. This would topple the balance of power in the favour of the revolution.”

A limited operation on the scale proposed by Mr Ghalioun is likely to rule out American involvement because U.S. rules of engagement dictate that a no-fly zone can only be mounted over a territory where potentially hostile air defences have first been neutralised.

The Syrian National Council, which is dominated by exiles like Mr Ghalioun, had decided last week to drop calls for non-Arab military intervention in the hope of building ties with other dissident groups. But he changed his mind after protesters on the streets of Syrian cities denounced the move.

Western powers have grown frustrated by divisions within the Syrian opposition. Didier Reynders, Belgium’s foreign minister, held talks with rival opposition groups yesterday to seek to mend a rift that, he warned, was “playing into the hands of the Syrian regime.”

Despite the frustration, Mr Ghalioun has won widespread praise in Western capitals after pledging that a post-Assad government would end military ties with Iran and end Syria’s policy of providing arms and financing to Hamas and Hizbollah, the anti-Israel Islamist groups.

Source: Calgary Herald

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