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06 December 2023

Arab ministers mull new steps in Syria crisis


Arab foreign ministers gathered in Cairo on Sunday to consider new moves in the Syrian crisis with the bloodshed showing no signs of abating, even spilling over into Lebanon.

The Syrian National Council said Arab recognition of the opposition umbrella group was imminent after Syrian authorities moved against protest flashpoints and a general was gunned down in Damascus on Saturday.

In the Qatari capital Doha, the SNC's Ahmed Ramadan said the group has "confirmations of an Arab recognition that will soon take place, though not necessarily on Sunday."

Arab ministers were also expected to consider proposals for an observer mission, withdrawn last month in the face of the mounting death toll, to be returned with UN reinforcement.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon broached the idea earlier this month as he bemoaned the Security Council's failure to agree a resolution on the crisis in the face of Chinese and Russian opposition.

Ahead of the Arab foreign ministers' meeting, ministers of the six Gulf Arab states, which have spearheaded regional condemnation of the Damascus regime, were set to hold their own separate talks.

The Gulf monarchies have ordered their envoys home from Syria and expelled Damascus's ambassadors, joining mounting international pressure on Assad over the killings of civilians.

In a tit-for-tat move, Syria said it has asked Tunisia and Libya to close their embassies in Damascus.

On Saturday, tensions escalated in Aleppo as President Bashar al-Assad's forces stepped up security a day after twin car bombs killed 28 people and wounded 235, activists said.

State media blamed "terrorists" for the bombings, but the rebel Free Syrian Army accused the regime of launching the attacks "to steer attention away from what it is doing in Homs, Zabadani and elsewhere."

Homs is Syria's third-largest city and has been under siege by regime forces which have pounded rebel neighbourhoods for more than week, killing at least 500 people, activists say.

Zabadani is a town between Damascus and the Lebanese border that has come in for similar treatment.

A US media report citing unnamed American officials said Al-Qaeda's Iraqi branch was likely to have carried out the Aleppo bombings, along with attacks on Damascus in December and January.

The attacks appeared to verify Assad's charges of Al-Qaeda involvement in the uprising against his 11-year rule, said the McClatchy Newspapers chain.

Iraq's deputy interior minister said jihadists were moving from Iraq to Syria, as are weapons being sent to Assad's opponents.

"We have intelligence information that a number of Iraqi jihadists went to Syria," Adnan al-Assadi told AFP, adding "weapons smuggling is still ongoing."

And Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri voiced his support for Syria's uprising in a new video message released on jihadist Internet forums, US monitors SITE Intelligence said on Sunday.

"I appeal to every Muslim and every free, honourable one in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, to rise to help his brothers in Syria with all that he can," Zawahiri was quoted as saying.

Forty-five people were killed nationwide on Saturday, mostly civilians, said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Tank fire killed 14 civilians in Homs, most of them in the rebel stronghold neighbourhood of Baba Amr, he said. Dozens were wounded.

Homs activist Hadi Abdullah accused policemen and soldiers of pillaging the Inshaat neighbourhood. "They are stealing computers, television sets... and even blankets."

Security forces also advanced into Zabadani, said Abdel Rahman, adding three civilians were killed there.

A general was shot dead outside his Damascus home, state media said. If confirmed, this would be one of the most brazen attacks on top brass in the capital since the uprising erupted in March last year.

"An armed terrorist group... assassinated brigadier general and doctor Issa al-Khawli, the director of Hamish hospital, outside his home in the district of Ruknaddin," the official SANA news agency said.

A YouTube video showed tanks bearing huge portraits of Assad firing on a road in Douma, a restive outer suburb of Damascus.

In another, protesters marched in the Damascus district of Al-Aassali carrying banners which said: "We will only kneel before God," and "Long live Syria, down with Bashar al-Assad."

In Lebanon, a 17-year-old girl was among three people killed and 23 were wounded in clashes between Sunnis hostile to Syria's regime and Alawites who support it, a security official said.
Ten of the wounded were Lebanese soldiers.

The rival factions in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, fired guns and rocket-propelled grenades in the bloodiest clashes since June, when six people died in the wake of demonstrations against Syria's government.