Cracking under pressure? Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman says Damascus has accepted an Arab League request to send observers to the country in an effort to end its eight-month crisis.
Jihad Makdissi said on Monday that Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem "responded positively" to the League demand and sent a letter to the organization's chief Nabil Elaraby on Sunday night.
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Arab leaders had given Syria a new deadline of Sunday to respond to the League's peace plan, which calls for the admission of observers to ensure compliance with a government cease-fire. They also held out the threat of pushing for UN involvement if Damascus balks.
Syria's failure to meet a November 25 deadline to allow in observers drew Arab League sanctions, including a ban on dealings with the country's central bank.
Together with sanctions from the United States, the European Union and Turkey, the Arab League's penalties are expected to deal significant damage to Syria's economy and may undercut the regime's authority.
The revolt against President Bashar Assad's rule began with peaceful protests in mid-March, triggering a brutal crackdown. The unrest has steadily become bloodier as army defectors join the revolt and some civilians take up arms, prompting the United Nations' human rights chief to refer to it last week as a civil war and urge the international community to protect Syrian civilians.
The UN estimates more than 4,000 people have been killed since the unrest started.
Anti-Assad rally in Homs (Photo: EPA)
Faced with Sunday's new Arab League deadline, Syria signaled it still might be willing to comply with the League's plan, saying its objections were simply a matter of details.
"Messages are being exchanged between Syria and the Arab League to reach a certain vision that would facilitate the mission of observers in Syria while preserving Syrian interests and sovereignty," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters in Damascus.
Asked whether any decision had been made, he said: "If there are good intentions, the road is open toward signing an agreement." A more detailed response would be made Monday, he said.
Syria, which has already been suspended from the 22-member League, may be playing for time while its crackdown continues.
International sanctions have left Assad's regime increasingly isolated.
The Syrian government said Sunday it was suspending a 2004 free-trade agreement with Turkey in response to the penalties imposed by its former close ally.
Turkey's Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan criticized the move, saying the Syrian government was "punishing its own people, its own industrialists, exporters and entrepreneurs."
"Despite the Syrian government's decision Turkey will continue to support and side with the people of Syria," Caglayan said in Turkey.
Turkey, a key NATO member and until recently a close partner of Syria, imposed tough new sanctions against Damascus this week that included the suspension of all ties to the Syrian Central Bank and freezing any Syrian government assets in Turkey. Turkey and Syria did $2.4 billion in trade last year, according to the Turkish Embassy in Damascus.
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