Even before Arab heads of state began their Thursday summit in the Iraqi capital, Syria sharply rejected any measures they take. A Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdessi, said Damascus would “not deal with any initiative” that might come out of the 22-member Arab League.
The rejection reflected Damascus’ refusal to work with the League after the pan-Arab body suspended Syria’s membership as punishment for the bloody crackdown on protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad. The UN says that over the past year more than 9,000 people have been killed in the violence.
Arab countries are divided over how aggressively to intervene in Syria’s turmoil. Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are believed to want to start providing weapons to Syria’s opposition and even carve out a “safe area” inside the country that the opposition can use as a staging ground.
Iraq, the host of this week’s summit, is more cautious. Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government is close to Iran, Assad’s closest ally, and is wary of hurting those ties. On Wednesday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Arab foreign ministers gathered in Baghdad that his country rejects foreign intervention in Syria but supports what he called the aspirations of the Syrian people for freedom and democracy.
“We stress our full support to the aspirations and legitimate demands of the Syrian people to freedom and democracy and their right to determine their future, choose their leaders and the peaceful transition for power,” said Zebari, a Kurd.
Assad’s regime on Tuesday announced its acceptance of an initiative by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan calling for a cease-fire. However, violence continued with clashes between government forces and armed opposition fighters. Syria’s opposition is deeply skeptical that Assad will carry out the terms of the peace plan.
Arab foreign ministers on Wednesday were working out recommendations for the heads of state to approve when they meet here Thursday. According to draft recommendations obtained by The Associated Press, the summit would call on Assad to implement a cease-fire, let in humanitarian aid and release all those detained the past year. It also demands he allow peaceful protests, withdraw army troops from urban centers and implement previous Arab League proposals to end the conflict.
Speaking before Zebari, Libya’s foreign minister, Ashour Ben Khayil, was much more forceful about the conflict in Syria.
“We witness the tragedy of our brothers in beloved Syria who have, for more than a year, face a tyrannical and harsh regime. Regrettably, the world stands by, unable to take decisive action,” he said. “What we witness every day across Syria is genocide ... against a people whose only sin is that they demanded freedom and dignity.”
Libya, where longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was ousted and killed last year, hosted the last Arab summit, in 2010. Last year’s Arab Spring upheavals led to the canceling of the summit, meant to be held in Iraq.
Opposition members accuse Assad of agreeing to Annan’s plan to stall for time as his troops make a renewed push to kill off bastions of dissent.
“We are not sure if it’s political maneuvering or a sincere act,” said Louay Safi, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council. “We have no trust in the current regime. ... We have to see that they have stopped killing civilians.”
Annan’s plan calls on Damascus to immediately stop troop movements and use of heavy weapons in populated areas and to commit to a daily two-hour halt in fighting to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations.