Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Arab summit appears divided over approach to Syria

BAGHDAD — Arab leaders gathering here today will call for Syria to implement a cease-fire, but there's little faith that President Bashar Assad will do anything to halt his crackdown on the year-old uprising.

That could set the stage for Arab nations, eager to see Assad's downfall, to take stronger action on their own.

Arab governments are divided over how strongly to intervene in bloodshed in Syria, and their divisions illustrate how the conflict has become a proxy in the region's wider rivalry — the one between Arabs and powerhouse Iran.

Sunni-led nations of the Persian Gulf such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar — hoping to break Syria out of its alliance with Shiite Iran — are thought to be considering arming the Syrian rebels to fight back against Assad's forces. But other Arab nations are reluctant to openly call for that step yet.

Iraq, the host of the one-day Arab League summit, is in a particularly tight spot because its Shiite-led government has close ties to Iran, Assad's top ally.

Given the divisions, foreign ministers meeting here Wednesday laid out a middle ground for their leaders to issue at the summit. The draft resolution would reject foreign intervention in Syria while voicing support for the Syrian people's "legitimate aspirations to freedom and democracy." It would call on Assad to implement a cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid, according to a copy obtained by the Associated Press.

It also supports the mission of joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who has put forward a peace plan to end the regime's crackdown that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 9,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring.

Damascus has accepted Annan's plan, which includes a cease-fire. Violence has continued, however, with clashes between government forces and armed rebels. Syria's opposition is deeply skeptical that Assad will carry out the terms of Annan's plan.

The plan also calls on Damascus to immediately stop troop movements and the 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.

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.

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