DOHA (Reuters) - The Arab League awaited a response from Syria on Monday to its proposal to end seven months of increasingly violent unrest against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and to start talks between Syrian authorities and their opponents.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country presides over the committee, also said Assad must launch serious reforms if Syria was to avoid slipping further into violence.
“The whole region is exposed to a big storm. It’s important that Arab leaders know how to respond, and not respond with deception or twisting and turning,” Sheikh Hamad told reporters late on Sunday.
“What is needed is taking steps for reform which avoid what happened in some Arab countries, because the change was difficult, and the destruction and losses were great,” he said, apparently referring to NATO’s military action in Libya which helped bring about the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
Arab diplomats said the plan, put to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem in Qatar, included immediate release of prisoners held since February, a withdrawal of security forces, deployment of Arab League monitors and starting a dialogue.
Assad told Russian Television on Sunday he would cooperate with the opposition. “We will cooperate with all political powers, both those who had existed before the crisis, and those who arose during it. We believe interacting with these powers is extremely important,” he said.
But in another interview with a British newspaper he portrayed Syria’s uprising as an Islamist insurgency which would be defeated.
The United Nations says more than 3,000 people have been killed in the Syrian government’s crackdown on protesters demanding political reforms and an end to Assad’s rule.
Assad blames the unrest of foreign-backed armed gangs and said in the television interview there had been “hundreds of deaths among the military, police and security forces.”
Syrian objections to having its internal affairs aired in a meeting outside Syria was a main sticking point.
“More important than a dialogue is action... This committee has given a very strong response to the recent killings,” Sheikh Hamad said.
Opposition sources said 61 civilians and 30 soldiers had been killed in clashes in the past three days.
Opposition figures have repeatedly said Assad’s offers of dialogue were not serious, and reported a rise in mass arrests, torture, disappearances and assassinations of activists and street protest leaders in recent weeks.
China’s Middle East envoy called on the authorities on Sunday to speed up the reforms Assad has promised, saying the situation was dangerous and the bloodshed could not continue.
A committee set up by Assad two weeks ago to draft a new constitution met for the first time on Monday, the state news agency SANA said. The committee has until mid-February to propose the new constitution.
Assad told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph that Western powers would cause an “earthquake” in the Middle East if they intervened in Syria, after protesters demanded outside protection to stop the killing of civilians.
Syria sits at the heart of the volatile Middle East, sharing borders with Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.
“It is the faultline, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake,” he said. “Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?”
Western sanctions aimed at Assad and the ruling elite have not been matched by any sign of military intervention in Syria.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly stated that organization has no intention to intervene in Syria, despite calls for it to do so by Syrian opposition activists.
He has said that NATO took the decision to intervene in Libya as it had a clear U.N. mandate to do so, as well as strong regional support, conditions that do not exist with Syria.
A mostly Sunni Muslim country of 20 million, Syria is ruled by members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, who also dominate the military, key sectors of the economy and a pervasive security apparatus.
Homs province, which borders Lebanon and is home to one of Syria’s two oil refineries, is emerging as a center of armed resistance to Assad after months of mainly peaceful protests that often drew a violent response from security forces.
One activist group said fighters thought to be army deserters had killed 30 soldiers in clashes in Homs city and in an ambush in the northwestern province of Idlib on Saturday.
Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Dominic Evans in Beirut and David Brunstrom in Brussels; Editing by Alistair Lyon