Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem on Sunday said that some members of the Arab League are trying to use the organization as a tool to refer the Syrian file to the U.N. Security Council.
Muallem’s remarks came at a televised press conference in Damascus, during which he expressed his regime’s defiant stance, saying: “If the battle is imposed on us, we will fight it.”
The Arab League, alarmed at the mounting death toll in Syria, rejected Damascus's request to alter a plan for the 500-strong fact-finding mission, which would include military personnel and human rights experts.
“The additions requested by the Syrian counterpart affect the heart of the protocol and fundamentally change the nature of the mission,” Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby said in a letter to the Syrian government.
“Violating Syrian sovereignty”
Muallem said the plan as it stood compromised the country’s sovereignty but Damascus had not rejected the mission.
He said the proposed mission had “pervasive jurisdiction that reaches the level of ... violating Syrian sovereignty” and that he would send the Arab League a letter with questions about its role.
“We will reply to the Arab League secretary general by responsibly presenting a number of queries,” he told the news conference in the Syrian capital.
“We will seek every window of opportunity (to work with the Arab League) until the Arabs tell us we don't want you in the Arab League," said Muallem.
The Cairo-based League had given Damascus three days from a meeting on Nov. 16 to abide by a deal to withdraw military forces from restive cities, start talks between the government and opposition and pave the way for an observer team.
It was not immediately clear what action the Arab League would take after the deadline passed unheeded by Damascus. The pan-Arab body had threatened sanctions for non-compliance, and it has already suspended Syria's membership.
“Although the time-frame has ended, there have been no meetings or calls for meetings except at the level of delegations (to the League),” a representative of one Arab state at the League told Reuters.
In a statement, the League said it remained committed to a peaceful, Arab-engineered solution to the Syrian upheaval, touched off by other Arab popular revolts that have overthrown the autocratic leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya this year.
Muallem dismissed as “wishful thinking” a warning by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that his country risked a descent into civil war.
“When Mrs. Clinton says the opposition is well-armed... it is, as they say in English, ‘wishful thinking’,” Muallem told the news conference.
Clinton had warned on Friday that Syria was at risk of a civil war following a daring attack on an air force intelligence base near Damascus by mutinous troops who call themselves the Free Syria Army.
Muallem also dismissed as “totally unfounded” reports that the offices of the ruling Baath party in Damascus had been hit by several rocket-propelled grenades early on Sunday.
The Syrian Free Army, comprising army defectors and based in neighboring Turkey, claimed responsibility for the attack, but an AFP reporter who went to the area found no trace of an attack while local residents denied there had been explosions.
Muallem's comments came after Assad, who has ruled Syria with an iron fist for 11 years, vowed to fight and die if necessary, in an interview published in London’s Sunday Times.
“The only way is to search for the armed people, chase the armed gangs, prevent the entry of arms and weapons from neighboring countries, prevent sabotage and enforce law and order,” he said.
Assad said there would be elections in February or March when Syrians would vote for a parliament to create a new constitution and that would include provision for a presidential ballot.
Death toll on the rise
At least 24 more people were reported to have been killed at the weekend, adding to the U.N. figure of the more than 3,500 deaths since mid-March in the Syrian crackdown on protests, according to AFP.
Among the dead were four intelligence agents killed as gunmen raked their car with gunfire and two mutinous soldiers who died in clashes with regular troops in the central town of Shayzar, rights campaigners said.
With rebel troops inflicting mounting losses on the regular army, Turkey and the United States have both raised the specter of civil war, but Assad said he was “definitely” prepared to fight and die for Syria if faced with foreign intervention.
He said he felt sorrow for each drop of Syrian blood spilled but insisted that Damascus must go after armed rebel gangs and enforce law and order.
“The conflict will continue and the pressure to subjugate Syria will continue,” Assad said. “I assure you that Syria will not bow down and that it will continue to resist the pressure being imposed on it.”
Syrian authorities blame the violence on foreign-backed armed groups which they say have killed some 1,100 troops and police.
An opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said it envisaged a transitional period lasting up to one-and-a-half years if Assad was toppled.
But some prominent Assad opponents said more work was needed on uniting the opposition to bring about his downfall.
On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops manning roadblocks in Homs fired on residential areas.
In the nearby town of Talbiseh, government forces delivered the bodies of two men arrested last month and in Idlib another two civilians were killed in military operations, the British-based group said.
Syrian authorities have barred most independent journalists from entering the country during the revolt, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.
International pressure mounts
Non-Arab Turkey, once an ally of Assad, is also taking an increasingly tough attitude to Damascus.
Turkish newspapers said on Saturday Ankara had contingency plans to create no-fly or buffer zones to protect civilians in neighboring Syria if the bloodshed worsens, according to Reuters.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said there was “no place for authoritarian regimes” in the Mediterranean region.
“As someone who has studied in the United Kingdom, lived in the United Kingdom, has this world view, President Assad should be able to understand this,” Gul told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata and his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle, meanwhile, expressed “deep concern for the escalation of violence” in Syria and support for the Arab plan to end it, a joint statement said, AFP reported.
Russia, which has staunchly resisted any attempt to invoke international involvement in the crisis, fearing it could clear the way for a Libya-style military campaign under a U.N. mandate, meanwhile called for restraint.
NATO on Sunday said action in Syria was not on the table.
“There is no discussion of a NATO role with regard to Syria,” James Appathurai, NATO deputy assistant secretary general for political affairs and security policy, told a defense summit in Canada.