Arab League chief calls for giving Syria initiative a chance

Syrian opposition delegation assaulted by Syrian nationals off Arab League headquarters in Cairo

Turkey warns Syria not to play PKK card

Syrian mufti accuses Der Spiegel of misquoting him on Syria

Concerns in Lebanon economy might be affected by international sanctions against Syria

Opponents of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad held protests around the country Friday, as opposition leaders urged the demonstrators to call for a suspension of Syria's Arab League membership.

The 22-member league will hold an emergency meeting in Cairo on Saturday to discuss Syria's unrest.

That meeting of comes on the heels of an apparent breakdown of an agreement that calls on the Syrian government to end its brutal crackdown on dissent.

Earlier this month, Syria announced that it had agreed to the plan, which includes a withdrawal of security forces from the streets and talks with the opposition. However, activists and witnesses have reported continued violence.

Human Rights Watch issued a report Friday echoing the call to suspend Syria's Arab League membership. The New York-based rights group said Syrian authorities may be guilty of crimes against humanity for alleged torture and unlawful killings in areas including the flashpoint region of Homs. v The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least five people were killed during anti-government demonstrations on Friday. Activists also report that security forces took up positions on rooftops in Damascus, in an apparent bid to discourage protests there.

Activists said at least 33 people were killed on Thursday, with many of the deaths taking place in the Homs region. Security forces have launched a series of raids in Homs in search of dissidents. Activists said Syrian soldiers were also killed, in an apparent ambush.

The casualty figures could not be independently verified because Syria bars most foreign journalists from operating in the country.

On Thursday, Amnesty International called on the Arab League to press Syria to allow independent monitors to enter the country.

Earlier in the week, the U.N. human rights office said at least 3,500 people had been killed in the country since protests against President Assad began in March.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Abdullah Gül has warned Syria not to use the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against Turkey, indicating that he hopes that the neighboring country does not do the same mistake it did in the past by hosting PKK terrorists.

Speaking to Britain’s The Financial Times on Monday, Gül recalled that Syria previously hosted members of the PKK, which the US, the European Union and Turkey all proscribe as a terrorist group, and urged it not do so again.

“I would strongly suggest and would expect that they would not get into such a dangerous game,” he said. “Even though I do not think they would do that, we are still closely following the matter.”

Turkey, once a close ally of the Syrian president, has gradually toughened its criticism of the Syrian regime for its brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests.

Last month, Erdoğan slammed Assad, suggesting that Syria would be the next country on the Arab Spring list and that Assad would eventually be ousted by his own people.

“Those who repress their own people in Syria will not survive. The time of autocracies is over. Totalitarian regimes are disappearing. The rule of the people is coming,” Erdoğan also said in September in Libya while addressing the Libyan people.

Claims emerged recently that Syria may use the PKK card against Turkey in response to Ankara’s strong criticism of the Syrian administration.

During the interview, Gül also pushed back at Iran’s efforts to depict Turkey’s line on Syria as a bid to curry favor with Washington.

“When we talk to Iran, we always tell them that we are not against the Syrian regime due to pressure imposed by any other country,” Gül said. “It is because of and for the people of Syria,” he added.

Gül said Turkey’s success in the last decade in many areas impressed the Arab world. “Turkey’s success, especially during the last decade, has impressed the Arab world,” he said, stressing his nation’s status as a secular, democratic, free-market Muslim majority country. “For that reason they are following us closely and for that reason we have indirect influence.”

As for Turkey’s European Union bid, Gül insisted Ankara will press on with its bid to join the EU, even though some EU member states have, he says, begun to alienate public opinion with their “negative attitudes”. “Right at the moment we are doing much better than most of the EU countries in terms of the Maastricht criteria,” he said.

Commenting on the US-Turkish relations, Gül said “the period we are going through is the healthiest relations that we ever had with the US.”

On the other hand, Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun, the country's highest religious authority, said on Thursday that Der Spiegel magazine misinterpreted his statements concerning Syrian President Bashar Assad’s resignation after he has implemented reforms.

“I only intended to explain the developments in Syria,” Hassoun wrote on his website.

The grand mufti stressed that Der Spiegel used his statements out of context and altered some answers to negative statements. “If the opposition presented a comprehensive program to convince the Syrian people and didn’t resort to assassinations, arms, and murder (against the Syrian people), then the president would have thanked them and returned to practicing his career,” he added.

He noted that he told the magazine that Assad “doesn’t cling to the presidency because some media outlets reported that he will resign after implementing reforms.”

Concerning his statements that Assad shares responsibility over the events in Syria, the grand mufti said: “We were discussing the turmoil in the nation and I said that every citizen in Syria shares the responsibility to safeguard the nation and is responsible for the crisis.”

Der Spiegel quoted Hassoun on Tuesday as saying: “I am convinced that he (Assad) will gradually introduce reforms, allow free and fair elections with independent parties, and then, after a peaceful transition, he might be willing to step down.”

“He's not president for life. Bashar Assad, a former eye doctor, wants to return to his old profession. I can easily imagine it. In fact, he has told me several times about his dream of running an eye clinic,” he added.

Syria’s political leadership has weathered sanctions for over three decades, but experts say a more multilateral approach from the United States and European Union may be taking its toll on the Syrian economy.

On Monday, citing anecdotal evidence, U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the Assad government is beginning to feel the “pinch” of U.S. and EU sanctions.

“We do believe that the sanctions that we have put on Syria, that the EU in particular has put on Syria are beginning to pinch,” Nuland told reporters.

And late last month the Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar told journalists in Damascus the economy was being “affected” by the ongoing developments in the country, without referring specifically to sanctions.

Despite no immediate sign of change on the ground, some say the agreement by the Syrian government on an Arab League plan last week represents a subtle switch from the usually defiant government policy toward outside pressure.

But to what extent can sanctions impact a government that has resisted such methods for decades?

“With the U.S. sanctions they could survive. But the EU sanctions are not something they bothered to think about. Now they can’t sell oil anywhere. Even China is thinking twice about docking in Tartous,” says Rime Allaf, a Syrian researcher at Chatham House, who was against all previous sanctions on Syria but supports the current round because of its aim of ending the violent crackdown on civilian protesters. “This is one of the reasons they publicly accepted the Arab League plan.”

Since the uprising began in mid-March, the U.S. and the EU have imposed sanctions on individuals connected with the government through freezing assets and on oil exports.

In 1979, after declaring Syria a state sponsor of terrorism, the U.S. Congress imposed its first set of sanctions on Syria. This was followed by new rounds of sanctions every few years, the most comprehensive and controversial of which was the Syrian Accountability Act, signed by Congress in 2003, which included bans on nearly all exports to Syria, U.S. businesses operating or investing in Syria and a pre-emptive ban on U.S. commercial flights to and over Syria.

The sanctions, which were generally condemned by the Syrian public and were shown to have loopholes, saw no change in Syria’s foreign policy or political leadership.

Experts say that the latest sanctions are different. Their multilateral approach, and the fact they are aimed at the Syrian government’s domestic, rather than international policy, means they are achieving their intended result.

Omar Dahi, assistant professor of economics at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, says previous sanctions on the Syrian government were imposed as a result of actions that perhaps many Syrians agreed with.

“This is not the case today,” he said. “Syrians did not accept that Syria be punished for having an independent foreign policy, but now they do want to see the regime held accountable for human rights violations and killings.”

“Now people are demanding the sanctions,” says Chatham House’s Allaf, “even a lot of the so-called pro-stability people, after Hama [when it is believed around 200 people died between July 31 and Aug. 4 in a crackdown on civilian protesters]. There was only so much they could take.”

Today, almost all opposition groups are calling for some sort of sanctions, although they are not always in agreement as to how such measures should be implemented.

“There seems to be significant support within large segments of Syrian society for international actions aimed at weakening the regime and speeding a transition to democracy,” says Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute for Peace who focuses on Syria. “The regime’s response to the uprising is the single most important cause of economic suffering experienced by most Syrians, and they are keenly aware of this.”