BEIRUT — Syria signed an Arab League initiative Monday that will allow Arab observers into the country as part of peace deal that aims to end the nation’s increasingly bloody 9-month-old crisis, Syria’s foreign minister said.
Damascus had previously balked at signing the deal, and the regime’s final acceptance of it was likely in response to mounting international pressure on it to end a bloody crackdown that the U.N. says has killed at least 5,000 people. Syria also appears to prefer to give Arabs a chance to end a crisis that has grown increasingly violent, fueling fears that the country could slip into civil war.
“The signing of the protocol is the beginning of cooperation between us and the Arab League and we will welcome the Arab League observers,” Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters in Damascus.
He said that the observers will have a one-month mandate that can be extended by another month if both sides agree. The observers will be “free” in their movements and “under the protection of the Syrian government,” he said, but will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.
The Arab League had given Syria until Wednesday to sign the agreement, warning that if Damascus did not, the League would likely turn to the U.N. Security Council for action to try to end the President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on the popular uprising that the U.N. says has killed at least 5,000 people.
The agreement was signed at the Arab League’s Cairo headquarters after the 22-member bloc accepted amendments demanded by Syria, al-Moallem said. An Arab League official in Cairo, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, confirmed that Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, had signed the deal.
Many regime opponents have in the past accused Assad waffling on the deal as a way to gain time as he continues his crackdown, and have expressed skepticism that the regime will cooperate even after signing the initiative.
Al-Moallem, however, said Syria will deal with the mission with “all seriousness, professionalism and objectivity,” adding he will be coordinating “on daily basis” with Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby.
The Syrian revolt began in mid-March as peaceful protesters emboldened by uprisings across the Arab world took to the streets to demand an end to the Assad family’s more than 40-year rule. But there has been a sharp escalation in armed clashes recently, raising concerns the country of 22 million is slipping toward civil war.
The regime claims armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking more freedoms in one of the most totalitarian regimes in the Middle East.
Al-Moallem sought to reinforce that line Monday, saying “the observers will come to see with their own eyes that there are armed terrorist groups that are doing sabotage and killing people.”
The United Nations has been waiting for word from the Arab League before moving ahead with a resolution on Syria. A clear nod from Damascus’ Arab neighbors could ease Russian and Chinese opposition to sanctions. Both nations have veto power at the Security Council.
The Arab League plan calls for Syria to halt its crackdown, hold talks with the opposition and allow in Arab observers to ensure compliance with the deal. It does not call for foreign military intervention, as in Libya.
The 22-member League already has suspended Syria’s membership and imposed sanctions, but it has been divided over whether to seek the help of the wider international community beyond the Arab world.
Asked whether Arab sanctions would be lifted which was one of the conditions placed by the Syrian government earlier, al-Moallem said: “The Arabs imposed these sanctions, and they should be lifted, but we will leave it up to them and their concern for the Syrian people if they are honest about it.”