Syria said Sunday that it is negotiating with the Arab League to allow observers into the country, as Arab leaders prepare to tighten sanctions slapped on the regime for its crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising.
Arab leaders have given Syria a new deadline — Sunday — to respond to the League peace plan, which calls for the admission of observers to prevent regime violence against protesters.
Syria’s failure to meet a Nov. 25 deadline to allow observers saw the imposition of a raft of measures, including a ban on dealings with the country’s central bank.
In addition to sanctions imposed by Western countries, the Arab measures are expected to deal significant damage to Syria’s economy and may undercut the regime’s authority.
Syria is now signaling that it might still be willing to comply with the Arab League’s peace plan, and that its objections to the plan are 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.
Damascus may simply be playing for time. Qatar’s prime minister said Saturday during a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in the Gulf country’s capital Doha that he expected Syrian envoys to sign an agreement on Sunday.
Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani said that failure to reach an agreement may lead to U.N. involvement in the Syrian crisis, although he did not spell out what that meant.
Arab ministers have continued to meet to work out enforcement of the existing sanctions package.
Some sanctions — the central bank ban, a halt to Arab government funding of projects in Syria, and a freezing of Syrian government assets — went into effect immediately.
Saturday’s Arab ministerial meeting was intended to work out further details of the sanctions, including a list of 19 Syrian officials subject to a travel ban.
Among them are President Bashar Assad’s younger brother Maher, who is believed to be in command of much of the crackdown, as well as Cabinet ministers, intelligence chiefs and security officers. The list does not include the president himself.
The punitive action is meant to pressure the Syrian regime to stop its crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising in which more than 4,000 people have been killed.
The revolt against Assad’s rule began with peaceful protests in mid-March, triggering a brutal crackdown. The unrest has steadily become bloodier as defectors and some civilians take up arms, prompting the United Nations’ human rights chief to refer to it this week as a civil war and urge the international community to protect Syrian civilians.