CAIRO (Reuters) - The head of the Arab League said on Tuesday that monitors could be in Syria before the end of the month to assess whether Damascus is implementing an Arab plan to end a bloody crackdown on protests after weeks of stalling.
Galvanized by a soaring death toll after Syria turned troops and tanks on anti-government protests, Arab states have pushed Damascus to let in a team of about 150 observers to witness what is happening on the ground.
“I can say with some assurance, but not certainty, that before the end of next week they will all be there,” Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told Reuters.
The mission is the first of its kind for an organization characterized until recently by uncritical support for its member states’ mostly autocratic rulers.
“It is a completely new mission, an uncharted mission in every sense of the word and, as with every agreement in the world, it depends on implementation in good faith,” Elaraby said.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad agreed at the start of November to a plan demanding an end to fighting, the withdrawal of troops from residential areas, the release of prisoners and the start of a dialogue with the opposition.
But for six weeks it baulked at letting in monitors to assess implementation while the death toll climbed. It finally signed a protocol on monitors, which is renewable after a month, on Monday.
A small advance team, led by a top League official, will head to Damascus on Thursday to prepare for the mission, Elaraby said. Once the monitors are in place, the assessment on whether Syria is in compliance could be made swiftly.
“In a week’s time, from the start of the operation, we will know. We don’t need a month,” he said.
The monitoring operation will be led by a Sudanese general with experience of peacekeeping operations and will include members from Arab states and non-governmental organizations. Members of the media will also accompany them.
Elaraby, 76, a seasoned Egyptian diplomat who was picked to head the Cairo-based League in May, said Gulf states agreed on Monday to send 60 monitors, making a total of about 150 so far.
The monitors will expect freedom of communication and movement, including access to prisons and hospitals, he said.
After Syria for weeks showed no signs of acting on the plan, Arab states announced a range of sanctions on financial dealings with Syria, and travel restrictions.
Those measures will stay in place until monitors give their assessment in daily and weekly reports that will be shown to, but not vetted by, Syria, Elaraby said.
The measures were “adopted by the Arab ministerial meeting and this is the body that has the authority to end the sanctions,” he said.
Elaraby said the League had rejected earlier Syrian demands for amendments that he said would have changed the substance of the mission, and that later amendments secured by Syria had not been substantive.
“They tried to portray it as if it has major changes, I won’t comment on this,” he said, adding that once the League had ensured the nature of the mission would not be affected, “a word here or a word there will not change anything.”
Elaraby said he had been assured by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, when he signed the protocol, that Syria had removed military units from most residential areas and would clear the rest before monitors arrived.
Qatar, which led efforts to push Syria to agree to the plan, had warned Syria last week that Arab states could ask the U.N. Security Council to step in and adopt the plan.
“This is an Arab operation, decided upon by the council of ministers of the Arab League. But we are keeping the United Nations informed,” Elaraby said, adding that he had written to the U.N. secretary-general to inform him that Syria had signed the protocol.
The League for decades avoided taking action against member states, with rare exceptions such as the dispatch of military peacekeepers to Lebanon when war erupted there in the 1970s.
But it has now been spurred into action by the ‘Arab Spring’. First it called for a no-fly zone during an uprising in Libya that led to a U.N. Security Council resolution and then NATO air strikes.
Now the League has imposed sanctions on Syria, but Arab officials say they do not want foreign military intervention.
Elaraby said he had sought a role in Yemen, but that Gulf states had taken the lead to deal with a revolt there. He also said he would visit Bahrain, where protests have also erupted.
“Wherever there is a problem, we try to intervene, but we cannot force ourselves. We don’t have the enforcement measures that the United Nations has. It has to be with the consent of every country,” said Elaraby, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations.
Elaraby has appointed a commission to make proposals to restructure parts of the League to adapt to the new demands, though any expansion of its powers or change in its structure will need the agreement of all 22 member states.
Editing by Jon Boyle