FM Says Syria Has Duty To Confront Armed Groups

Published January 24, 2012 1:54PM (EST)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's foreign minister said Tuesday that "half the universe" is conspiring against his country, as Gulf Arab nations withdrew from a monitoring mission in Syria because the government has failed to stop 10 months of violence.

International pressure is building on Syria, not only from the West but increasingly from Arab nations as well. The U.N. estimates more than 5,400 people have been killed since Syria's uprising began in March, sparked by the arrest of a group of teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in the country's south.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on Tuesday signaled the crackdown will continue, saying in Damascus that the government will take any steps necessary to defend against chaos.

Syria has long held that armed gangs acting out a foreign conspiracy are behind the revolt, not protesters seeking change in one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East.

"It is the duty of the Syrian government to take what it sees as necessary measures to deal with those armed groups that spread chaos," al-Moallem said during a televised news conference.

He also said it was clear that some Arab countries have joined the conspiracy against Syria — a clear reference to the Gulf countries and to Sunday's call by the Arab League for Syria to create a national unity government in two months.

The plan also provides for Assad to give his vice president full powers to cooperate with the proposed government to enable it to carry out its duties during a transitional period.

Damascus has rejected the plan as a violation of national sovereignty.

Tuesday's decision by Gulf nations to pull out their monitors is a blow to an Arab League observer mission that has been mired by controversy, but which for many represented the only hope for an Arab solution to the crisis in Syria, away from outside intervention.

Now, the Gulf Cooperation Council has called on the U.N. Security Council to take all "necessary measures" to force Syria to implement the Arab League's peace plan.

"The decision was made after careful and thorough monitoring of events in Syria and the conviction by the GCC that the bloodshed and the killing of innocent people there is continuing," the statement by the six-nation GCC said.

Al-Moallem brushed off the threat of the Security Council.

"If they go to (U.N. headquarters in) New York or the moon, as long as we don't pay their tickets, this is their business," he said.

But he acknowledged there is little hope for an Arab solution.

He said some (Gulf) Arabs have "assassinated" the role of the Arab League in ending the crisis in Syria, and went to the Security Council instead. He tried to portray confidence, however, saying Syria had the strong support of powerful allies in Iran and Russia.

An official at the Cairo-based Arab League said an emergency meeting of permanent representatives of the group's 22 members will be held later Tuesday in the Egyptian capital to "review the situation" following the GCC's decision.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The GCC — which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — has long advocated referring Syria to the Security Council, putting it in conflict with other Arab states.

The Arab League's observer mission, which includes 52 monitors from the Gulf nations, has encountered heavy criticism for its failure to stop the Assad regime's crackdown. The GCC withdrawal will leave about 110 observers on the ground, League officials said.

Saudi Arabia had announced Monday that it would pull out its observers.

"This is their business," al-Moallem said. "Maybe the Saudi brothers in the mission don't want to see the realities on the ground, which don't satisfy their plots," he added.

Activists, meanwhile, reported more violence Tuesday.

Syrian troops opened fire to disperse hundreds of people in al-Barra village in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of northern Syria who had gathered for the funeral of Radwan Rabih Hamadi, a 46-year-old prominent opposition figure who was ambushed and assassinated by gunmen on Monday, activists said.

Activists say Hamadi was instrumental in the uprising against Assad in the northern Idlib province.

Six people were reported wounded in Tuesday's shooting.


Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut, and Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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