Syria has accepted an Arab League request to send observers to the country in an effort to end its eight-month crisis, a move that could ease Arab sanctions on Damascus, the Foreign Ministry said Monday.
The Syrian statement came after Damascus announced it conducted mass military maneuvers over the weekend in an apparent show of force as President Bashar Assad’s regime defies pressures over its deadly crackdown on opponents.
The ministry’s spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, told reporters 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.
There was no immediate reaction from the Arab League, which has already suspended Syria, to Damascus’ announcement.
But Makdissi said that al-Moallem’s message to the League combined some “minor amendments that won’t affect the essence of the plan,” stressing that Damascus is still insisting that the protocol be signed in Damascus rather than at the League’s headquarters in Cairo.
“It is a right step on the road to a solution,” Makdissi said.
Arab leaders had given Syria a new deadline of Sunday to respond to the League’s 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 U.N. involvement if Damascus balks.
Syria’s failure to meet a Nov. 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 inflict significant damage on Syria’s economy and may undercut the regime’s authority.
Some sanctions — the central bank ban, a halt to Arab government funding of projects in Syria and a freeze of Syrian government assets — went into effect immediately.
Also, an Arab meeting in Qatar on Saturday approved a list of 19 Syrian officials subject to a travel ban. Among them are 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 Arab moves are part of mounting international pressure on Assad’s regime to end its crackdown on an eight-month uprising that the U.N. says has killed more than 4,000 people.
Damascus remains defiant, however, and has shown few signs of easing its campaign against dissent.
In an apparent show of force, Syria’s state-run media said Monday that Syrian military war games over the weekend included missile tests and operations by air force and ground troops “similar to a real battle.”
Makdissi, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said “the maneuvers were routine and planned earlier.”
But the combination of missile tests as well as air and ground troops indicate the maneuvers were of a higher-level than the military’s usual annual war games.
State TV said the exercise was meant to test “the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression.”
The drill showed Syrian missiles and troops were “ready to defend the nation and deter anyone who dares to endanger its security” and that the missiles hit their test targets with precision, state TV said.
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In October, Assad warned the Middle East “will burn” if the West intervenes in Syria and threatened to turn the region into “tens of Afghanistans.”
Syria is known to have surface-to-surface missiles such as Scuds, capable of hitting deep inside its archenemy Israel.
Syrian TV showed a missile being fired, as senior officers followed the event using their binoculars, then a missile hitting the ground creating a thick brown cloud.
State media did not say where the maneuvers where conducted. But Israel’s daily Jerusalem Post quoted Israeli army officials as saying the test was conducted Saturday in Syria’s northeast and included the firing of a Scud B missile, with a range of 185 miles (300 kilometers), toward the Iraqi border.
Although the U.S. and the European Union have imposed waves of sanctions against Syria in recent months, Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil as they did in Libya.
On top of that, Assad has a number of powerful allies that give him the means to push back against outside pressure, and the international community is aware that intervening in Syria risks touching off a wider Mideast confrontation with Israel and Iran in the mix.
Syria wouldn’t have to look far for prime targets to strike, sharing a border with U.S.-backed Israel and NATO-member Turkey. Assad’s regime is the closest Arab ally of Iran and also has ties to Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement and other radical groups, including the militant Palestinian Hamas.
State-run news agency SANA quoted Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha as telling the forces that participated in the maneuvers “to be in full readiness to carry out any orders give to them.”