Gulf states withdraw observers from Syria

Syrian government rejects Arab League proposals, Arabi to head for UN Security Council

Opposition consider Syrian foreign minister’s statements as threat to escalate killings

Russia: Situation in Syria reached dead end, nothing more to offer for Assad

New U.S.-EU sanctions on Iran

Gulf Arab states withdrew their observers from Syria on Tuesday after it rejected an Arab League plan for President Bashar al-Assad to surrender power, prompting the group's chief to call for U.N. help in ending Syria's bloody upheaval.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem accused the League of plotting to engineer foreign intervention. Thousands of civilians and members of security forces have been killed in the 10-month-old uprising against Assad.

Despite Syria's anger, Moallem agreed to extend by a month the mission of the remaining Arab League observers who are monitoring implementation of a plan to end the bloodshed. But he scornfully rejected the League's latest proposal.

"Definitely the solution in Syria is not the solution suggested by the Arab League, which we have rejected. They have abandoned their role as the Arab League and we no longer want Arab solutions to the crisis," Moallem said.

"Heading to the Security Council will be the third stage in their plan, and the only thing left is the last step of internationalization," he told a news conference in Damascus. "They can head to New York or to the moon. So long as we are not paying for their tickets it is none of our concern."

The revolt in Syria was inspired by others that have toppled three Arab leaders and the bloodshed has battered Assad's standing in the world, with Iran among his few remaining allies.

On Tuesday, the death toll rose to 26 by the evening, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Fifteen were killed in clashes between state forces and armed rebels in the flashpoint province of Homs.

Arab League officials said 55 Gulf Arab observers were being withdrawn while the other 110 members of the team would continue work in Syria.

State news agency SANA said Moallem told Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby that Damascus had agreed to extend the monitoring mission until February 23.

The Gulf Cooperation Council states said in a statement they were "certain the bloodshed and killing of innocents would continue, and that the Syrian regime would not abide by the Arab League's resolutions."

Elaraby and Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, who heads the League's committee on Syria, sent a joint letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon giving details of the organization's latest plan for a political solution in Syria.

The letter asks for a "joint meeting between them in the U.N. headquarters to inform the Security Council about developments and obtain the support of the Council for this plan," a League statement said.

The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Mohammad Bin Nawaf, said the idea of resorting to the Security Council was to rally the world behind the Arab League peace initiative for Syria.

"We pulled out (the monitors) because we didn't see any positive response from the Syrian government. But it is a process. Take it to the U.N. Security Council to get the support on that initiative," he told journalists in London. "We hope it doesn't reach an escalation of a military intervention. The last thing we want is an unstable region. We hope the Syrian regime will comply with the Arab initiative. I think this is the logical way out, a peaceful solution, a peaceful transition. I think this is the only hope they have."

Moallem poured contempt on the League's call for Assad to hand power to a unity government to defuse the violence.

He said that while "half the universe is against us," Syria's long-time ally and arms supplier Russia, which wields a veto on the Security Council, would never permit foreign intervention. "That is a red line for them."

Still, the Arab League's call for a change of Syrian government, coupled with the diminution of the monitoring mission, will raise pressure on the Security Council to overcome its divisions and act to stop Syria's bloodshed.

More than 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt erupted in March, according to the United Nations. Damascus says "terrorists" have killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.

What began as civilian street protests has escalated into an armed insurgency in some regions as Assad has sought to crush unrest with troops and tanks.

The presence of the monitors has not halted the violence, as envisaged under a peace plan Damascus approved. The Arab observers deployed late last month to assess Syria's compliance with an earlier Arab League plan.

"There has been some progress, but there has not been immediate or complete implementation as the Arab initiative requires," Elaraby said on Tuesday, adding that he would name a special envoy to Syria this week.

A Syrian opposition group condemned the mission's leader, Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, for a report in which he highlighted violence by Assad's adversaries as well as by the president's security forces.

The Syria-based Local Coordination Committees criticized Dabi for equating "the butcher and the victim," saying he had "blurred the monumental hardship that millions of Syrians experience every day while they rise to reach freedom, dignity, democracy and a wise system of governance."

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said the Security Council's silence on Syria was scandalous, but that the Arab League call for Assad's removal was "a glimmer of light."

The Arab League's request for the Council to endorse its plan will force could be a "game changer," Germany's U.N. envoy Petter Witting said, and may finally force the world body to take a stand on Syria's crisis.

Meanwhile, a member of Russia's Parliament, Mikhail Margelov, said Monday that Moscow ran out of methods to stop the international push for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.

Russia's veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria "was the last instrument allowing Bashar Assad to maintain the status quo in the international arena,” Margelov was quoted as saying by Russia's Itar-Tass news agency.

He also said Moscow's stance was a "serious signal to the president of Syria from Russia. This veto has exhausted our arsenal of such resources."

The Security Council has been blocked for months over Syria, with Russia and China maintaining that any moves in the U.N. body against Assad would be the first steps toward regime change by force, as in Libya last year.

But Margelov’s comments were seen as a shift in Russia's position since the Assad regime launched a deadly crackdown on protestors in March.

Margelov is chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia's upper house of parliament and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's special Africa envoy.

Assad "should read this position unequivocally: reforms, an end to violence, free elections. This is what the Syrian leadership should do immediately, today," he said.

Even as they tightened the financial screws on Iran with new sanctions on Monday, the United States and its European allies reiterated their readiness to resume talks with Tehran on curbing what they suspect is a secret nuclear weapons development program.

European Union foreign ministers agreed to a phased ban on Iranian oil purchases by the bloc's 27 states, and the Obama administration took action under which foreign institutions doing business with Iran's third largest bank could be cut off from the U.S. financial system.

The blacklisting of Bank Tejarat brought to 23 the number of Iranian financial institutions under U.S. sanctions for allegedly funding Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

By intensifying the pressure on Iran — but keeping the door open to talks — the United States and the EU underscored their goal of averting what many experts fear is a rising threat of a Persian Gulf military confrontation that could disrupt exports from the world's main oil-producing region, dealing a fresh blow to the wobbly global economy.

"To avoid any military solution, which could have irreparable consequences, we have decided to go further down the road to sanctions," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said in Brussels. "It is a good decision that sends a strong message and which I hope will persuade Iran that it must change its position, change its line and accept the dialogue that we propose."

The Obama administration hailed the EU decision, under which the bloc's members won't sign new oil contracts with Iran and will terminate existing agreements by July 1. The ban also applies to purchases of Iranian petrochemical products and sales of petroleum technology to Tehran.

In a joint statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called the EU move a "strong step." But they reiterated that the United States and other powers were looking for Iran "to engage seriously in discussions with the international community on its nuclear program."

Iran has defied six U.N. resolutions since 2003 demanding that it suspend its enrichment of uranium, which it kept hidden from international inspections for 18 years. The process produces low-enriched uranium, for power generation, and highly enriched uranium, which is used to fuel nuclear weapons.

Iran insists that the program is for peaceful purposes. But the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency reported in November that Iran had been working on a missile-borne nuclear warhead, and that it still may be pursuing some parts of the effort.

The EU action targeting Iran's oil exports — the country's main source of income — followed a similar move by President Barack Obama, who signed legislation Dec. 31 that denies access to the U.S. financial system to foreign entities that do business with Iran's central bank. The central bank handles most payments for Iranian oil sales.

Iran is beginning to suffer serious economic consequences from U.N. sanctions and unilateral U.S. and EU measures. But Tehran showed no sign Monday of officially accepting a 3-month-old EU invitation to resume talks on its nuclear program.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Aragchi told the state-run news agency that sanctions "have proved ineffective in the past and will prove futile in the future, too."

EU nations, which are collectively the world's second largest purchaser of Iranian oil, will suffer "further complications" to their own struggling economies as a result of their Iranian oil purchase ban, Aragchi said.

Two senior Iranian lawmakers also were quoted by state-run media as reiterating a threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which some 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil is shipped, in response to a disruption of Iranian petroleum exports.

The renewed threat came a day after a U.S. Navy strike group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, cruised into the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. It was joined by French and British warships — an unambiguous statement of resolve to use force if Iran tries to blockade the 30-mile-wide passage.

Asked how Iran could show that it would engage in serious talks on its nuclear program, an administration official told McClatchy that Tehran must agree to resume negotiations "without preconditions."

The last talks collapsed in January 2011after Tehran demanded international recognition of its right to uranium enrichment and the lifting of all sanctions before it would discuss the nuclear program.

"Iran must provide an assurance that it is prepared to reopen talks without preconditions and engage in a constructive and serious manner," said the administration official, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "We are not interested in talks for show alone."

An EU diplomat, who requested anonymity for the same reason, said that Iran would have to respond to the EU invitation by stating unambiguously "that they are prepared to discuss the nuclear issue."