Syria ready to let monitors stay, rebel seeks U.N. action
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria is ready to let Arab monitors extend their mission beyond this week, an Arab source said on Tuesday, but a rebel army chief said they should go as they had failed to curb a crackdown on protesters seeking President Bashar al-Assad's overthrow.
Damascus opposes broadening the scope of the Arab League observer mission, the source at the League said, but would accept a one-month extension of its mandate which expires on Thursday.
However, Riad al-Asaad, the Turkish-based commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, called for international intervention to replace the observer team which is monitoring Syria's implementation of a League plan to end 10 months of bloodshed.
U.N. officials say more than 5,000 people have been killed in the violence across Syria and the government says 2,000 members of its security forces have died.
The Arab League must decide whether to withdraw its 165 monitors or keep them in Syria, even though they are expected to report that Damascus has not fully implemented a peace plan agreed on November 2. Arab foreign ministers are set to discuss the team's future on January 22.
"The outcome of the contacts that have taken place over the past week between the Arab League and Syria have affirmed that Syria will not reject the renewal of the Arab monitoring mission for another month ... if the Arab foreign ministers call for this at the coming meeting," the source said.
The Arab plan required Syria to halt the bloodshed, withdraw troops from cities, free detainees, provide access for the monitors and the media and open talks with opposition forces.
Rebel commander Asaad opposed any extension of the mandate.
"The Arab League and their monitors failed in their mission and though we respect and appreciate our Arab brothers for their efforts, we think they are incapable of improving conditions in Syria or resisting this regime," he told Reuters.
"For that reason we call on them to turn the issue over to the U.N. Security Council and we ask that the international community intervene because they are more capable of protecting Syrians at this stage than our Arab brothers," Asaad said.
The source said Beijing and Moscow had urged President Assad to accept an extension of the monitoring mission as a way to avert an escalation at the international level.
Syria would agree to an increase in the number of monitors, he said, but would not allow them to be given formal fact-finding duties or be allowed into "military zones" that are not included in the existing Arab peace plan.
Any change in the scope of the mission, whether to militarize it or let it investigate human rights abuses and potentially assign blame, would require a new agreement with Syria, the source said.
Qatar has proposed sending in Arab troops, a bold idea for the often sluggish League and one likely to be resisted by Arab rulers close to Assad and those worried about unrest at home.
Syria's foreign ministry said on Tuesday it was "astonished" at Qatar's suggestion, which it "absolutely rejected."
AN OLD ALLY
The League could ask the U.N. Security Council to act, but until now opposition from Russia and China has prevented the world body from even criticizing Syria, an old ally of Moscow.
Western diplomats said a Russian draft resolution handed to the council on Monday did not make clear if Moscow would accept tough language demanded by the West.
French Deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal described Moscow's latest draft as disappointing, saying Paris had proposed constructive amendments to the Russian text.
"After a month of silence a new text has just been submitted by Russia, which still falls far short of responding to the reality in Syria," he said. "We've been saying this for months now: the Security Council's silence is scandalous."
Few Western powers favour any Libyan-style military action in Syria, which lies in the heart of the conflict-prone Middle East. Bordering Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Israel, it is allied to Iran and the armed Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah group.
Iran condemned what it called foreign interference in the affairs of its closest Arab ally, Syria, and praised reforms President Assad has promised as "problem-solving."
"We are fundamentally against interfering in the affairs of other countries. We think it does not solve the problems but will only make them more complicated," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told a news conference.
Assad, while offering reform, has vowed to crush his opponents with an "iron fist," but Syrians braving bullets and torture chambers appear equally determined to add him to the list of the past year's toppled Arab leaders.
Army deserters and other rebels have taken up arms against security forces dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, pushing Sunni Muslim-majority Syria closer to civil war.
ROCKETS AND TANK FIRE
Syria's state news agency SANA reported on Tuesday that what it called terrorists had fired rockets, killing an officer and five of his men at a rural checkpoint near Damascus. Seven others were wounded in the incident, a day after gunmen assassinated a brigadier general near the capital.
Eight people were killed when a bomb hit a minibus on the Aleppo-Idlib road, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In Homs, tank fire crashed into the Khalidiya district after a night rally against Assad there, activists said. YouTube footage showed a crowd dancing at the rally and waving the old Syrian flag used before the Baath Party seized power in 1963.
The British-based Observatory said eight people were killed in violence in Homs, a flashpoint city of one million racked by unrest, crackdowns and Sunni-Alawite sectarian killings.
Activists also reported fighting between rebels and troops trying to edge into Khalidiya, a neighborhood that is home to Sunni tribesmen and lies next to the Alawite district of Nozha.
Tanks were firing sporadically at the rebel-held town of Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, which has been under attack since Friday, activists said. They added that several soldiers who had tried to defect to the opposition had been killed.
Syrian forces shot dead a man at a roadblock in the restive Damascus suburb of Qatana, they said, and an activist was killed by sniper fire in the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun.
The United States, the European Union, Turkey and the Arab League have announced sanctions against Syria, but while these have hurt its economy, they have yet to prompt Assad to change course. Opposition to sanctions from some of Syria's trading partners, notably Lebanon and Iraq, also dilutes their impact.
Security Council members have been divided for months over the uprising against Assad, with Western countries pushing for strong condemnation of the government's bloody crackdown but Russia seeking to shield Damascus.
In October, Russia and China vetoed a European-drafted resolution that threatened possible sanctions. Russia presented its own draft on December 15 and Western countries agreed to discuss and negotiate it, but there has been little progress since then.
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