Syrian opposition sees no solution to crisis outside UN Security Council

Free Syrian Army commander urges international intervention as Syrian government rejects Qatar’s Arab troops proposal

Arab League to consider Qatar’s proposal as Moscow rejects it

Western countries balk at adopting Russia’s draft resolution

U.S. accuses Iran of sending arms to Syria, Tehran denies

Syria said on Thursday sanctions were biting as the head of the Arab League's heavily criticized monitoring mission to the country was due in Cairo to brief ministers on its first month of operations.

"We have suffered important losses as a result of our inability to export crude oil and petroleum products," Oil Minister Sufian Allaw told a news conference in Damascus.

"The shortfall and losses from September 1 until now add up to more than $2 billion," he said.

The Arab League deputy leader, Ahmed Ben Helli, said the "decisive" report on monitors would evaluate Syrian cooperation with the mission, while noting difficulties in observers gaining access to hot spots.

"We are at a turning point, as the Arab observer mission's report will be presented on Thursday, marking a month since the protocol was signed," Ben Helli told Qatari media on Wednesday. "The report will be decisive."

Arab foreign ministers will hear the mission's report at a meeting on Sunday when they will decide whether to seek Damascus's agreement to extend it for a second month.

The two sides agreed that the mission could continue until Sunday's meeting.

The League's Syria operations chief, Adnan Khodeir, said mission leader General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi was due at Cairo headquarters to deliver the report to League chief Nabil al-Arabi ahead of Sunday ministerial meetings. Qatar, whose Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani chairs the Arab League panel on Syria, has been pressing for the observer mission to be given teeth by deploying Arab peacekeeping troops.

Doha's proposal is not formally on the agenda of Sunday's foreign ministers' meeting, but it could be discussed, Khodeir said.

"Any country that wishes can bring up the issue," he said of Sheikh Hamad's call, which Damascus has flatly rejected.

"What we are talking about now at the Arab League is whether there will be a new approach concerning the observer mission," he told reporters on Wednesday.

Arabi has also said the idea could be discussed.

As activists reported another 18 civilian deaths killed by Syrian security forces on Thursday, a coalition of some 140 Arab rights groups demanded the withdrawal of the League's "flawed" mission and urged UN intervention.

Among the dead were four leading pro-democracy activists who were killed in an ambush in Idlib province in the northwest, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Meanwhile, the official SANA news agency reported that a brigadier general and two security force members were killed "by the fire of armed terrorist groups in the district of al-Jarajmeh in Hama."

The Local Coordination Committees, which spurs protests on the ground, reported a general killed by deserters who had refused to fire on demonstrators, and also of a lieutenant. The Observatory said it could confirm "a brigadier general, a lieutenant and three soldiers were killed after a group of deserters destroyed two armored vehicles and troop carriers" al-Jarajmeh.

It also reported the death of three deserters in separate incidents.

The Arab mission, which currently numbers about 165 monitors, has been in Syria since December 26 to oversee an Arab road map under which President Bashar al-Assad's government agreed to end violence.

"No observers have been able to do their job: instead, the mission legitimizes the Syrian regime," said Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, in a statement.

Former observer Anouar Malek, who resigned in protest over the mission's credibility and aims, echoed Ziadeh's criticism.

"I was threatened with death for doing my job as I watched people being killed, beaten up and arrested by police, soldiers and militiamen. The Syrian regime is plainly defying the Arab League," he said.

The United Nations estimates that the unrest in Syria between the security forces and pro-democracy activists has left more than 5,400 people dead since it first erupted in March, with 400 killed since the observers deployed.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said it was clear that the observer mission was "in difficulty" and not being allowed to work, adding that the observers' report should be submitted to the UN Security Council for further action.

A tough Security Council resolution on Syria has been blocked by veto-wielding permanent members Russia and China, which defended the Arab mission on Wednesday.

"Since the Arab League observer mission began, the violence in Syria has not completely ended, but the security situation of major areas has improved," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.

This "shows the mission is effective," he added.

Moscow has warned against Western calls for punitive measures against Damascus, insisting the opposition is as much to blame for the violence as the regime.

Germany's UN envoy Peter Wittig said the Security Council "did not live up to its responsibilities" in the face of vetoes by Moscow and Beijing last October of a European-drafted resolution that would have threatened Damascus with "targeted measures."

French foreign minister Alain Juppé has called for humanitarian intervention in Syria, but world leaders hesitate.

As the price of inaction rises, they need a clear strategy for hastening change. My experience with a Free Syrian Army commander shows that the rebel force will play a crucial role.

As world leaders debate what to do about the ongoing crisis in Syria, much of their hesitation still revolves around whether there is a credible alternative to more than 40 years of Assad rule.

The Syria National Council, a grouping of mostly exiled political leaders, has emerged to become the opposition’s primary voice abroad.

But what about the Free Syrian Army, the growing rebel force made up of thousands of defectors who are now taking on President Bashar al-Assad’s troops on the ground?

Looking for answers, I anxiously waited for a Free Syrian Army commander in a dark cold safe house on the Lebanese-Syrian frontier. The nervous silence was pierced only by the sound of bullets going off in the distant hills. Time passed before headlights appeared, meandering down a pitch-black mountain road. Shortly after, commander Ahmad Al Arabi walked in, Kalashnikov (rifle) in hand.

Al Arabi is a tough built man in his fifties. No beard, just the traditional Syrian moustache and a charismatic smile. Along with his assault rifle, he is armed with a mobile phone that he uses to communicate with soldiers in the field.

The phone also doubles as a camera for photos with lady journalists he smuggles across the border. He is hardly a conservative, religious man.

After some humor to ease strained nerves, the Lebanon-based commander gets down to business.

The battalion he leads is dubbed “Dawn of Freedom,” and its area of operations extends from the mountains of northern Lebanon to the outskirts of the besieged Syrian city of Homs, some 12 miles away. Its primary stated objectives are the defense of wounded army defectors and refugees who escape to north Lebanon – both securing their escape routes and defending them on Lebanese soil. It also ensures the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Homs and provides access for foreign journalists reporting on the uprising.

Orders to hundreds of Al Arabi’s soldiers who operate within Syria originate with rebel leadership in southern Turkey. And although news of military defections from Assad’s forces and subsequent attacks against them continuously stream out, the commander insists that all are operating under centralized authority. “Our units employ hit and run tactics, but there are no rouge elements,” he stresses.

Abu Mohammad and his wife are refugees the Free Syrian Army claims to be protecting. They walked hundreds of miles from Syria’s southern town of Daraa to reach safety in Lebanon’s northern mountains. He is wanted for participating in the anti-regime protests that first sparked the uprising some 10 months ago. Failing to capture him, government troops allegedly tortured and killed his three-year-old son.

His body was returned with fingers cut off and several bullets lodged in his lifeless chest. As the grieving father shared his harrowing story, his wife nursed an anemic infant, born prematurely during their escape.

Contrary to regime allegations, foreign support for the Free Syrian Army remains scant. The growing numbers of defectors depend on whatever they can seize from government Army barracks. Those I saw carry only their Army issued automatic rifles and bullet cases to sustain them through battle.

Libyan military leaders, who recently toppled Qaddafi with NATO support, are reportedly alone in offering the rebels some assistance.

Western, Turkish, and Arab leaders have legitimate concerns about supporting the Free Syrian Army. Those include avoiding direct military confrontation with a Syrian regime that holds large stockpiles of chemical weapons, hundreds of ballistic missiles, and continues a track record of resorting to political violence.

But as Syria slides into a regime-instigated civil war, one that could spill over to neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, the price of foreign inaction is rising. Furthermore, with growing regime violence and counter violence, keeping the Syrian uprising peaceful is no longer an option.

The international community needs a clear strategy for hastening the pace of change in Syria, and the Free Syrian Army is now an undeniable and crucial part of that equation.

For commander Al Arabi, an internationally enforced no-fly zone or a humanitarian corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border are his primary demands. In his mind such a scenario will give cover to thousands of demoralized soldiers inside Syria who are still unable to defect. It would also provide civilians with a greater degree of protection and, by hastening the regime’s departure, stop Syria’s slide into civil strife.

Despite the unspeakable hardship, rebels and refugees alike are confident that the 40-plus years of Assad rule are coming to a close. “It is only a matter of time,” they optimistically insist. But the question is, at what cost?

When commander Al Arabi got up to leave, he picked up his Kalashnikov and made me a promise. “If they [the West] come to help, I will name my son Juppé,” after the outspoken French foreign minister who has led calls for a humanitarian intervention. He then disappeared into the dark cold hills from which he came. His plan was to be across the border in Homs the next morning.

Firas Maksad is a Washington-based analyst on the Middle East and a political consultant with a leading US law firm. The mandate of the Arab League observer mission in Syria is due to expire, a month after it arrived to verify the implementation of a peace initiative.

The head of the mission is finalizing a report on the ongoing violence, which will be discussed at a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers on Saturday.

Syrian's government is reportedly keen for the monitors to stay, but the opposition wants the UN to intervene.

Meanwhile, four activists are said to have been killed in Idlib province.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a car in which they were traveling was ambushed by security forces in the Jabal al-Zawiya area. They had been trying to evade capture, it added.

Another activist group, the Local Co-ordination Committees, said 25 people had been killed nationwide, including seven in Idlib province, six in the central city of Hama and four in nearby Homs.

A military intelligence brigadier, Adel Mustafa, also was killed by soldiers who had defected and refused his orders to shoot at civilians in the Bab Qibli area of Hama, according to the LCC.

Meanwhile, a senior opposition leader in contact with residents in the town of Zabadani said dozens of tanks and armored vehicles had pulled back, two days after the army allegedly agreed a ceasefire with rebels.

Kamal al-Labwani told the Reuters news agency that food and basic supplies had also started reaching the town, 30km (20 miles) north-west of Damascus and close to the border with Lebanon.

The Arab League's 165 observers are widely perceived to have failed to halt the crackdown on dissent by President Bashar al-Assad's government since they arrived in December.

The UN Security Council was told earlier this month that 400 people had been killed during the monitors' first 10 days in the country. The UN had previously said that more than 5,000 had died since March.

A former member of the observer mission told the BBC on Thursday that the Arab League "worked for the Assad system and not to prevent the massacre of civilians".

"I witnessed crimes against humanity, and I was really shocked. I have seen houses destroyed, the bodies of murdered women and children, and families have a lack of food. I have seen bodies with marks of torture," Anwar Malek said.

Although the initial mandate of the observer mission comes to an end on Thursday, the agreement covering it provides for an extension for a second month if both sides agree.

The BBC's Jim Muir, in neighboring Lebanon, says there is no suggestion from the Syrian government side that it should be ended.

So the decision is up to the Arab League foreign ministers, who will meet in Cairo on Saturday and Sunday, our correspondent adds.

They will be considering a report from the head of the observer mission, Sudanese Gen Mohammed al-Dabi - a controversial figure who has been accused of carrying out human rights violations in his own country - which will draw conclusions on its findings since it began work on the ground.

Malek, who resigned earlier this month, said any report prepared by the observers would not be a full picture of events on the ground.

"I've seen reports before and they don't write things correctly," he added. "This is not the truth, especially about massacres and children's deaths. There's not trace of them in the reports."

The head of the Arab League's Cairo operations room, Adnan al-Khudeir, said the monitors would remain in 17 difference places around Syria until a decision was made about whether to extend their mission.

"If there is a decision to extend the mission of the observers, we are ready to send more monitors after training them in three days,'' he told the Associated Press.

The Arab League ministers may also discuss informally a proposal from the emir of Qatar for Arab troops to be sent to Syria "to stop the killing", an idea the Syrian government has angrily rejected.

The Arab League is divided, and it is unlikely that there will be much support for such a move at this stage.

The UN Security Council is also divided.

On Wednesday, Russia's foreign minister said it would block any attempt by the West to secure a resolution supporting sanctions against Syria or make any move that might lead to military intervention.

"If some intend to use force at all cost... we can hardly prevent that from happening,'' Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow. "But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience. They won't get any authorization from the UN Security Council.''

China meanwhile defended the observer mission, saying "the security situation of major areas has improved" and expressing support for "the settlement of the Syrian issue within the framework of the Arab League".

But the European Union is preparing to tighten its own measures against Syria on Monday, by imposing restrictions on more prominent Syrian individuals and companies associated with the government.

The UK will "lead the way" in tightening sanctions, Prime Minister David Cameron has promised. He Iran and its allies in Lebanon's Hezbollah movement of helping the Syrian government.

Meanwhile, Syria's oil minister has announced that the country has lost more than $2bn (£1.29bn) in revenues since 1 September as a result of sanctions imposed on oil exports by the US and EU.

U.S. officials have uncovered an effort by Iran to help Syria mask its oil exports and evade an American and European embargo, in a potent new sign of Tehran's campaign to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as his regime cracks down on public opposition.

American officials investigating the Iranian operation said it was designed to quietly ship Syrian crude oil to Iran, where it can be sold on the international market, with revenue going back to Damascus. Transit records document one such shipment -- involving more than 100,000 tons of crude -- which took place last month.

"The oil shipment to Iran was designed to evade the sanctions that have been imposed on Syria," said a senior U.S. Treasury Department official familiar with the case.

In response, the treasury department has begun targeting the insurance and registration of international tankers shipping Syrian oil overseas. Many are insured in the U.S.

Concerns aren't limited to Iran. Washington and its allies are also intensifying the scrutiny of maritime and air traffic moving into Syria from Russia, as Moscow has publicly committed to continue arming Assad's security forces.

This month, Cyprus intercepted a St. Petersburg-based ship, the Chariot, that was moving four containers of munitions bound for the Syrian port of Tartus, according to Cypriot officials. Cyprus eventually released the ship after assurances from its Russian owners that it wouldn't complete the delivery, according to Cypriot officials.

But Moscow this week confirmed the arms shipment was made. The ship's owner, the Russian freight company Balchart, declined to comment.

A spokesman for the Iranian embassy at the UN said there are no international sanctions on Syria that Tehran needs to respect.

He also said that outside powers, not Iran, have been feeding the conflict inside Syria by shipping in arms. "Syria is an independent country, and Iran respects its sovereignty," said the spokesman. "Iran believes that Syrians have the right to self-determination free from any foreign intervention."