Arab League Urges Unity Government in Syria

Posted January 22nd, 2012 at 6:05 pm (UTC-5)
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Arab League foreign ministers have called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to hand over powers to his vice president after forming a unity government, as a prelude to early parliamentary and presidential elections.

Qatar's Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani in Cairo announced the plan in Cairo Sunday. It calls for the Syrian government to begin a national dialogue with the opposition within two weeks, and for the new government to be formed in two months.

Al-Thani said the Arab League would take its initiative to the United Nations Security Council and ask for its endorsement.

But Saudi Arabia threw the league's observer mission into turmoil Sunday by announcing it will withdraw its observers from Syria. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said the decision was taken to protest what he called Syria's failure to respect an earlier Arab League plan to end the violent crackdown on a 10-month opposition uprising.

Prince Faisal urged the international community – including Syrian allies Russia and China – to use “all possible pressure” to persuade Mr. Assad's government to implement the earlier plan. That proposal calls for the withdrawal of government forces from residential areas, the release of political prisoners, free access for the media, and dialogue with government opponents.

Saudi Arabia has been one of the harshest Arab critics of Mr. Assad's crackdown on the rebellion against his 11-year autocratic rule.

Arab League ministers also extended their much-criticized mission of 165 observers in Syria for another month, after its mandate expired on Thursday. The league said it would add more monitors and provide them with additional resources.

The mission has drawn heavy criticism from Syrian opposition activists who accuse Damascus of deceiving observers and using them as a cover to intensify attacks on anti-government protesters and rebels.

A prominent Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council, has been lobbying the Arab League to abandon the observer mission and refer the Syrian crisis to the U.N. Security Council.

British-based rights activist Rami Abdul-Rahman said forces loyal to Mr. Assad fought with rebels in the Damascus suburb of Douma late Saturday. The area has been a frequent center of anti-Assad unrest.

The Syrian government accuses “armed terrorists” of driving the revolt. In a report Sunday, the Syrian state news agency SANA said terrorists shot and killed a brigadier general and another senior officer as the two men drove to work in the Damascus countryside.

The United Nations says violence linked to the uprising has killed more than 5,400 people. Syria says terrorists have killed about 2,000 security force members since the unrest began.