11/16/2011

Death Toll Mounts in Syria, Along With Outside Pressure

THE NEW YORK TIMES

By NADA BAKRI
Published: November 15, 2011


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Against a backdrop of mounting Arab pressure on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, activists on Tuesday reported mounting violence, with more than 50 people killed on Monday, making it the highest death toll on a single day in months.
The latest tally of bloodletting came a day after King Abdullah of neighboring Jordan added his voice on Monday to the growing calls for Mr. Assad to relinquish power, becoming the first Arab leader on Syria’s doorstep to call for a change in government to end the increasingly bloody political uprising there.
The Jordanian monarch’s remarks, made in an interview with the BBC, came with Mr. Assad still smarting from the Arab League’s unexpectedly strong rebuke over the weekend with its decision to suspend Syria’s membership. Syria also faced additional sanctions imposed Monday by the European Union.

“I believe, if I were in his shoes, I would step down,” King Abdullah told the BBC. “If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life.”
Other countries in the region with historically close ties to Syria, notably Turkey and Iran, have warned Mr. Assad that he should take steps to satisfy the demands of protesters in the eight-month-old uprising, which has now become a focal point in the Arab revolts that have felled autocratic regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia this year. But the public comments about Mr. Assad by King Abdullah — who has faced some Arab Spring protests in his own country — went beyond what others have said.
In the latest violence, activists said that 28 civilians died in the southern city of Dara’a during clashes that lasted for several hours on Monday between security forces and army defectors, according to Omar Idlibi, a member of the Local Coordination Committees activist group.
Other antiregime figures said that most of the casualties were soldiers and army deserters. Syria has banned most foreign journalists from covering Syria, making it hard to confirm news independently.
Mr. Idlibi also said that 13 people were killed in Homs, in central Syria, and that eight of them were found on Monday near a trash hauling bin with their hands cuffed behind their backs. Two of the bodies were in military uniform, he added.
Activists also reported that six people were killed in the northwestern province of Idlib, and one in the province of Qamishli in northeastern Syria, both near the Turkish border. Two were killed in Hama, in central Syria and one in Damascus, the capital.
Mr. Idlibi also said that three were killed on Tuesday in central Syria.
On Monday, Mr. Assad’s foreign minister said the Arab League suspension of Syria was “an extremely dangerous step.” He also apologized for a spree of attacks on foreign embassies in Syria by pro-Assad loyalists outraged over the Arab League move.
The foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, speaking at a televised news conference in Damascus, reiterated Syria’s contention that it had complied with the terms of a proposed Arab League peace plan by withdrawing its armed troops from urban areas, releasing political prisoners and offering pardons to militants.
But rights activists in Syria, as well as a majority of Arab League members, have said Syria had failed to comply with the peace plan, pointing to new violence in Syria since it agreed to the accord on Nov. 2. Activists said Monday that more than 240 people had been killed from the day the plan was announced until last week.
The majority of the deaths were in Homs, a restive city in central Syria that was subjected to a major military assault just days after the peace initiative was announced.
The United Nations said this month that at least 3,500 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising started in March. The government disputed the death toll and has blamed the unrest on armed groups which it says have killed more than 1,100 soldiers and police officers.
Mr. Moallem also played down any prospects of an international military intervention in Syria, like the NATO-led campaign against Libya that helped topple the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in August.
“The Libyan scenario will not be repeated,” he said, contending that Western and Arab countries know that the cost of confronting the Syrian military would be high.
“As for attacks on foreign embassies, as the foreign minister I apologize for these aggressions,” Mr. Moallem said. The embassies and consulates of France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were attacked by angry demonstrators in Damascus and other cities on Saturday, shortly after the Arab League announced the suspension decision.
Mr. Moallem said his government was organizing a national dialogue with opposition figures and other members of the Syrian society, who are represented by neither the government nor the opposition.
Syria called Sunday for an emergency Arab League summit meeting to discuss the political unrest and invited officials to visit the country before the suspension goes into effect on Wednesday, to oversee the implementation of the Arab peace plan.
In Cairo, Nabil el-Araby, the secretary general of the Arab League, said he had forwarded Syria’s request for an emergency meeting to other members. He also said he was moving forward with a tentative plan to protect civilians in Syria by deploying observers around the country from at least 16 Arab human rights organizations.
The tentative plan is to deploy 400 or 500 observers, Mr. Araby said in a brief interview, adding that he hoped to complete the proposal to present to Arab League foreign ministers, who are to meet in Rabat, Morocco, on Wednesday. Whether Syria would even allow these observers into the country is not clear, especially if the Rabat meeting confirms Syria’s suspension from the league, as expected.
The European Union, meanwhile, sought to intensify pressure on Syria by imposing additional sanctions against some of the country’s citizens and restricting investment.
European foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, agreed to freeze the assets of 18 Syrians and to bar them from traveling to European Union nations. The move brings the total number of Syrians affected by the restrictions to 74.
But the ministers said there were no plans to take military action against Mr. Assad’s government. “This is a different situation from Libya,” said William Hague, the British foreign secretary. “There is no United Nations Security Council resolution, and Syria is a much more complex situation.”
The ministers also stopped the European Investment Bank, a lender with a major focus on overseas development, from giving Syria additional loan payments and they halted other activities by the bank in Syria.
The European Union had already frozen the assets of 19 companies and institutions in Syria. A European embargo on Syrian oil has reduced oil production by as much as 75 percent. Revenue from Syria’s oil exports represented anywhere from 15 percent to 35 percent of the national budget, and more than 90 percent of those exports went to Europe.
“It’s very important in the European Union that we consider additional measures to add to the pressure on the Assad regime to stop the unacceptable violence against the people of Syria,” Mr. Hague said.

James Kanter contributed reporting from Brussels, and Neil MacFarquhar from Cairo.