Arab states mull a unified stance on Syria

Arab foreign ministers are assembling in Cairo for an emergency meeting this Saturday to try to forge a regional strategy on how to stop the violence in Syria, amid rising criticism of these their countries' failure to respond to the Bashar Assad regime's brutal domestic crackdown on protesters.

The discussions come ahead of a crucial UN Security Council meeting next week to decide further steps to take against the Assad government, and fresh Western bids to seek Arab support in increasing international isolation of the Syrian regime.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Araby, who announced the conference Thursday, did not disclose any details about the discussions, which are widely expected to center on coordinating regional, Arab and international efforts to end Syria's five-month long turmoil.

The Arab League was instrumental in passing a UN resolution in March calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, allowing NATO to carry out strikes against the regime of Muammar Qadhafi that appear to have completely toppled his government.

Sensitive to criticism of the international Libyan operation as an attack by the West on a Muslim country, the United States and other Western nations pressed the 22-member Arab League and the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Cooperation to call for a no-fly zone in Libya.

The Arab League also suspended Libya's membership and returned its seats to representatives of the National Transitional Council (NTC) after Qadhafi's ouster from power last week.

Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, whose country played a key role in passing the Libyan UN resolution, said the ministers will discuss Arab efforts to "help Syria achieve stability and the required reform." In a statement he made in Doha last week, Thani said the ministers will look into "putting a timetable for reform with help from Arabs."

But there are increasing doubts that the Arab foreign ministers will be able to muster enough support for similar tough measures against Syria, amid a deepening gap among Arab nations over how to address Syria's political crisis and uncertainty about its future. 

While Saudi Arabia and several Gulf countries have recalled their Damascus envoys, called for an end to the bloodshed, and backed efforts to refer Syria to the UN Human Rights Council, Iraq has expressed strong opposition to efforts to isolate Assad and warned that they will lead to Syria's division along sectarian lines.

Lebanon is expected to exert all possible efforts to keep the Assad regime out of trouble. Algeria, which rejected the Arab League resolution on Libya in March, is also expected to oppose similar measures against Syria.

Saudi commentators, who normally reflect the views of the Riyadh government, cautioned their ministers against appeasement toward Damascus. Tariq al-Humeid, editor-in-chief of the Saudi-owned Asharq Alawsat newspaper, warned the ministers against supporting a toothless resolution at the Cairo meeting.

"That will be a grave mistake against the armless Syrians and the security of the region at large," he wrote in an editorial Friday. He said the Arab League should order a collective withdrawal of ambassadors from Damascus and order the freeze of Syria's membership in the league.

In its first official statement on the unrest, issued on Sunday, the Arab League called on the Syrian authorities to "immediately" stop the violence that has rocked the country since mid-March.

During a visit to Damascus in July, Araby said he "reject[ed] any interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries and nobody can withdraw the legitimacy of a leader, because it is up to the people to decide."

Kuwait's envoy to the Arab League, Jamal Ghoneim, has connected Saturday's meeting to the United Nations' and European Union's plans to tighten sanctions on Syria. "Arabs should have a stance because [the issue] will be discussed by the Security Council and the EU," he told the Middle East News Agency on Friday.

On Tuesday, European nations and the US circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution seeking an arms embargo and other sanctions aimed at stopping the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters.

Syria is already under sanctions by the US and European countries, but calls for stricter measures have been increasing. The existing sanctions have broadened international pressure on Syria by directly targeting several Syrian top officials and military commanders.

A collective Arab effort to isolate Assad is also expected to give tremendous moral support to Syrian opposition movements, who are currently trying to form a broad-based council to represent the uprising against Assad.

On Thursday, representatives of several Syrian opposition groups met in Istanbul, but later said they needed more time to consult with activists inside Syria in order to determine the composition of a potential council.

Syria has been experiencing unrest since mid-March, when anti-government protests broke out in the southern province of Deraa and began to spread to other cities.

Despite international condemnation, the Syrian crackdown has continued apace. At least four people were killed on Friday, raising the death toll to over 2000 people and triggering a torrent of international condemnation.

Demonstrations erupted after Friday prayers yesterday in several Syrian towns and in some Damascus suburbs.

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