(Updates with report of Syria reaction in third paragraph.)
Nov. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Syria’s main opposition group said it will seek United Nations help to create buffer zones to protect civilians if President Bashar al-Assad’s government doesn’t comply with an Arab League plan to end the bloodshed.
“If the regime rejects the requests, it shows the world community and the Arab world that it is only trying to buy time,” Wael Merza, secretary-general of the opposition Syrian National Council, said yesterday in a Bloomberg Television interview in Dubai. “Then the file will be transferred to the international community, to the UN.”
On Nov. 16, the Arab League gave Syria three days to end a crackdown on protesters seeking to topple Assad and to allow observers in. The 22-member league, which suspended Syria’s participation, said it may impose economic sanctions and turned down Assad’s call for a summit. Syria agreed “in principal” to allow observers in, the Associated Press said today, citing an official in Damascus, who declined to be identified.
International pressure on Syria increased this week, with European Union foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton yesterday reiterating a call for Assad to resign. She made the comment at a news conference in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said reported attacks by military defectors of the Free Syrian Army on government forces indicated a situation similar to a “civil war.”
The opposition council, which includes secular groups and Islamists both at home and abroad, is seeking support from the Arab League, western countries and Russia to increase the “isolation of the regime,” according to Merza, who said he holds a doctorate in political science with a focus on regime change from Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California.
The eight-month revolt against Assad’s rule has begun to splinter the army, squeeze the economy and weaken support for Assad among erstwhile backers. King Abdullah of Jordan has signaled that Assad should step down. The Arab League has demanded that Syria withdraw tanks from cities, free detained protesters and start supervised talks with the opposition. It said Syria’s problems should be resolved without foreign intervention.
Syria’s army today shelled a village near the border with Turkey where many defectors from the military are said to be based, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported, citing activists.
The Arab League is seeking to send observers to Syria to monitor the violence. Russia and China have blocked efforts by the U.S. and European governments in the UN Security Council.
Russia supports the Arab League initiative to send observers, Lavrov told reporters in Moscow yesterday. He called for an end to violence by government and opposition forces. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking in Istanbul, accused Assad’s government of breaking its promise to reform, and said restoring stability to Syria is central to the stability of the Middle East.
Merza said Syrian security forces have killed more than 4,000 people and have detained 60,000 to 80,000 others since the eruption in mid-March of protests inspired by the uprisings that ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
The SNC says it will continue to lead a peaceful campaign for regime change. The council is trying to “contain” acts of armed resistance by military defectors and described them as “isolated incidents.”
Asked about efforts to oust Assad, Merza said, “I am positive that he will be out of power, this time next year.”
Assad has blamed foreign provocateurs and Islamic militants for the violence. Syria says it has freed more than 1,700 detained protesters this month.
The crisis has hit the Syrian’s economy, which is likely to shrink 2 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Assad’s policy of boosting subsidies and state salaries, as he seeks to shore up support, is “unsustainable,” said Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. Public finances were already weak and “it’s starker now,” he said. “Because of the crisis, the government can’t attract any foreign investment, and it will put additional pressure on the pound.”
Syria’s currency has dropped almost 6 percent against the dollar this year, according to Bloomberg data. The central bank has spent $3 billion from a $5 billion contingency fund to defend it, Governor Adib Mayaleh said last month. The Damascus Securities Exchange Index has slumped 52 percent in dollar terms this year, compared with drops of 20 percent and 15 percent on the benchmarks of neighboring Lebanon and Jordan.
--With assistance from Aida Alami in Cairo, Massoud A. Derhally in Beirut, Lebanon, Caroline Alexander in London, Henry Meyer in Moscow and Emre Peker and Steve Bryant in Ankara. Editors: Heather Langan, Terry Atlas, Ben Holland, Karl Maier.
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