Arab League to release ‘decisive report’ on Syria mission

Extent of Damascus' pressure on observers will be revealed

DAMASCUS - The Arab League will report Thursday on its heavily criticised observer mission to Syria as Western frustration grows over Russia's opposition to UN action on quelling a bloody crackdown on dissent.
The Arab bloc's deputy leader, Ahmed Ben Helli, said the "decisive" report would evaluate the Syrian government's cooperation with the mission, while noting the observers' difficulty in gaining access to hot spots.
"We are at a turning point as the Arab observer mission's report will be presented on Thursday, marking a month since the protocol was signed," Ben Helli told Qatari state media late on Wednesday.
"The report will be decisive," Ben Helli, added, alluding to the expiry Thursday of the hard-won mission's initial one-month mandate agreed with Damascus after months of exhaustive neogitation.
Qatar, whose Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani chairs the Arab League panel on Syria, has been pressing for the observer mission to be given teeth through the deployment of Arab peacekeeping troops.
The Qatari proposal is not formally on the agenda of a meeting of Arab foreign ministers called for Sunday to discuss the mission's future but could be discussed, said Adnan Khodeir, chief of Syria operations for the 22-member bloc.
"Any country that wishes can bring up the issue," said Khodeir, referring to the call by Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad Ben Khalifa al-Thani, to send Arab troops to Syria, which Damascus has flatly rejected.
"What we are talking about now at the Arab League is whether there will be a new approach concerning the observer mission,"he told reporters on Wednesday.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi has also said the idea could come up for debate.
A coalition of some 140 Arab human rights groups demanded the withdrawal of the League's "flawed" mission and called for UN intervention.
The mission, which currently numbers about 165 monitors, has been in Syria since December 26 to oversee an Arab road map under which President Bashar al-Assad's government agreed to end violence.
"The monitoring mission lacks basic transparency and credibility, the mission is under the authority of Sudan's ex-military intelligence director who was president's Darfur adviser during the genocide" allegedly committed there, said Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies.
"No observers have been able to do their job: instead, the mission legitimises the Syrian regime," Ziadeh added, in a statement representing the rights groups working in 19 different countries.
Former observer Anouar Malek, who resigned in protest over its credibility and aims, echoed Ziadeh's criticism of the mission and his call for UN intervention.
"I was threatened with death for doing my job as I watched people being killed, beaten up and arrested by police, soldiers and militiamen. The Syrian regime is plainly defying the Arab League.
"I join the coalition's call for an end to the mission and immediate action by the UN Security Council," he said.
The United Nations estimates that the unrest in Syria between the security forces and pro-democracy activists has left more than 5,400 people dead since it first erupted in March, with 400 killed since the Arab observer mission's deployment.
But a tough Security Council resolution on Syria has been blocked by veto-wielding permanent members Russia and China, which defended the Arab mission on Wednesday.
"Since the Arab League observer mission began, the violence in Syria has not completely ended, but the security situation of major areas has improved," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.
This "shows the mission is effective," he added.
For its part, Moscow has warned against Western calls for punitive measures against Damascus, insisting the Syrian opposition is as much to blame for the violence as the regime.
That has caused growing frustration among Western governments.
Germany's UN envoy Peter Wittig said the 15-member Security Council "did not live up to its responsibilities" in face of the vetoing by Moscow and Beijing last October of a European-drafted resolution that would have threatened Damascus with "targeted measures."
"I think it was a decision taken in Moscow. It was a very deliberate decision" to back the Assad regime, said Wittig, who criticised Russia for linking the debate on Syria to the NATO attacks in Libya.
"I sometimes have a feeling it is a pretext for not engaging in a more constructive manner on Syria," he said. "I don't think the cases can be compared."