Some 400 Syrian deaths since start of Arab mission; U.S. says Assad deflecting blame

The United Nations says that more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted across the country in March 2011. (Reuters)

At least 400 people have been killed in Syria since Arab League observers began a monitoring mission last month, a top U.N. official told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday.

As many as 38 people have been killed on Tuesday, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists.

U.N. undersecretary general B. Lynn Pascoe told the council that an average of 40 people a day have been killed in Syria since the Arab monitors arrived in Damascus on Dec. 26, according to envoys at his closed briefing.

In early December, the U.N. said that more than 5,000 people have been killed in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted across the country in March last year.

U.S. ambassador Susan Rice said the daily death rate was higher than before the Arab League deployment, which was part of a deal with the embattled president Bashar al-Assad’s government aiming to end the deadly crackdown.

The latest U.N. estimates come after Assad gave a speech on Tuesday in which he blamed foreign plotters Tuesday for the deadly 10-month-old protests against his regime and vowed to crush their “terrorism” with an iron fist.

The speech was rejected by Syrian opposition groups, while the United States on Tuesday said The Assad used the speech to try to “deflect the attention” of his people from his commitment to end his violent crackdown.

“He’s doing everything but what he needs to do,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington.

She said he must meet the commitments Syria made to the Arab League to end the violence, withdraw heavy weapons from cities, admit journalists, free political prisoners and allow for a real political dialogue.

“So that’s what we’re looking to see in Syria, and obviously this was an effort to deflect the attention of his own people from the real problem,” Nuland told reporters.

“Throughout the course of this speech, Assad manages to blame a foreign conspiracy that’s so vast with regard to the situation in Syria that it now includes the Arab League, most of the Syrian opposition, the entire international community,” Nuland said.

“He throws responsibility on everybody but back on himself,” she said.

“And with regard to his own responsibility for the violence in Syria, he seems to aggressively deny any responsibility or any hand in the role of his own security forces,” she added.

In the speech, Assad denied security forces had orders to fire on civilian protesters, even as activists reported regime gunmen killed 13 more civilians.

Assad said the unrest, which the United Nations estimated last month has cost more than 5,000 lives since March, would only come to an end “when the flow of funds and weapons coming from abroad stops.”

Assad insisted security personnel had no orders to shoot, saying, “By law, nobody can open fire, except in self-defense.”

France, Russia

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Tuesday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was divorced from reality and accused him of inciting violence in the country.

“It is a speech at odds with what one might expect. It incites violence and confrontation between the parties. It’s a sort of denial of reality,” Juppe said.

Although recent U.N. findings suggest the Arab League mission has been somewhat a failure in trying to stop violence in the country and reduce violence, Russia said on Tuesday Arab League monitors are playing a stabilizing role in Syria

Moscow welcomed an Arab League decision to continue the two-week-old mission to monitor implementation of the government’s pledge to stop a crackdown the United Nations says has killed more than 5,000 people in ten months of protests.

“Their deployment is already exerting a stabilizing influence on the situation and helping to provide a truthful and objective picture of what is happening,” a Russian Foreign Ministry statement posted on said of the observers.
It repeated Russian calls for dialogue between Assad’s government and his opponents.

Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Arab League observers to focus their efforts on the actions of both Syrian authorities and protesters during their mission.

“Top-priority attention of the (Arab League) mission in Syria should be also drawn ... to the disruptive activities of armed groups, which the opposition needs to decisively dissociate itself from,” the ministry said in a statement on a phone conversation with Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi.

Russia has maintained support for the increasingly isolated Assad, whose nation has been one of Moscow’s closest strategic partners in the Middle East and a big customer for its weapons.

Israel prepares for Assad downfall

Also in light of Assad’s speech, Israel has said it is making preparations for the fall of the Syrian President and a flood of refugees from his minority Alawite sect into the Golan Heights, Israel’s military chief told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday.

“Assad cannot continue to hold onto power,” a committee spokesman quoted Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz as saying.

“On the day that the regime falls, it is expected to result in a blow to the Alawite sect. We are preparing to take in Alawite refugees on the Golan Heights.”

Israel should also prepare for the possibility that cornered authorities in Damascus could “as a lifesaver ... act against us,” the general said.

Israeli officials have said they do not expect his government to last more than a few months but Gantz’s remarks were the first indication that Israel is already making contingency plans for the end of the rule.

In a speech on Tuesday, Assad again blamed the unrest on a foreign conspiracy against Syria. His opponents fear Syria could slip into a sectarian civil war between the majority Sunni Muslims and the Alawites and other minorities which support Assad.

Syria’s neighbors Turkey and Jordan have called on Assad to step down.

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