Arab observers head to Syria


Syrian troops on Thursday pursued an offensive in a region where activists reported the deadliest assault in a nine-month-old crackdown on unrest, as the vanguard of an Arab League team set to monitor compliance with a peace plan headed for Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 21 people were killed in various incidents in Homs and Idlib, including gunfire during a raid on a village by the army and security forces on Thursday, while soldiers backed by tanks and armored troop carriers swept into the town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Thursday’s violence shortly before the expected arrival in Damascus of Arab League officials to prepare for a monitoring mission tasked with ensuring Assad makes good on his commitment to a League plan to end the bloodshed. The plan entails a withdrawal of troops from the streets, release of prisoners and dialogue with the opposition.
Arab League sources have said the advance team, led by top League official Samir Seif al-Yazal, would comprise about 10 people, including financial, administrative and legal experts to ensure monitors have free access across Syria. The main group of around 150 observers is to arrive by the end of December. Syria stalled for six weeks before signing a protocol on Monday to admit the monitors.
ARAB PEACE MONITORS: The SNC demanded “an emergency U.N. Security Council session to discuss the (Assad) regime’s massacres in Jabal al-Zawiyah, Idlib and Homs, in particular” and called for “safe zones” to be set up under international protection.
It also said those regions should be declared disaster areas and urged the International Red Crescent and other relief organizations to provide humanitarian aid.
Syrian officials say over 1,000 prisoners have been freed since the plan was agreed six weeks ago and that the army has pulled out of cities. The government promised a parliamentary election early next year as well as constitutional reform which might loosen the ruling Baath Party’s grip on power.
Syrian pro-democracy activists are deeply skeptical about Assad’s commitment to the plan. If implemented, it could embolden demonstrators demanding an end to his 11-year rule, which followed three decades of domination by his father.
Assad is from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, and Alawites hold many senior posts in the army that he has deployed to crush the protests mounted mainly by members of the country’s Sunni Muslim majority.