Syrian president relies on close aides, as he faces the toughest challenge to 40-years of Assad family rule.
Syria has accused the Arab League of implementing a foreign conspiracy against the country, after a new initiative by the organisation called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down to end the bloodshed there.
Gulf Arab states said earlier on Tuesday that they had decided to withdraw their observers from the Arab League mission to Syria, saying that the much-criticised initiative had failed to stop the bloodshed.
The new plan envisioned the “peaceful departure of the Syrian regime” and resembled the arrangement in Yemen, where Gulf states convinced Ali Abdullah Saleh, the outgoing president, to delegate power and leave the country, Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, said.
Walid al-Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, told a news conference on Tuesday that the latest Arab proposal was a violation of his country’s sovereignty, and attacked the league for its efforts to take its plan to the UN.
Muallem said the league was “implementing the conspiracy they have agreed to abroad against Syria.”
“At this point in the conspiracy … it’s a provocation to bring the matter into international circles,” he said.
Despite his criticism of the pan-Arab bloc, Muallem, according to the SANA state news agency, later informed the league in a letter that Syria had agreed to extend the monitoring mission until February 23.
In his address earlier, Muallem signalled that the crackdown on dissent will continue, saying Syria’s government has a “duty” to confront armed groups.
“It is the duty of the Syrian government to take the necessary measures to address the problem of those armed elements who are wreaking havoc throughout Syria,” he said.
He also said that while sanctions imposed on the country are causing an economic crisis there, Damscus would not yield to such pressure.
“There is no doubt that any kind of sanctions affect the population, but they do not affect the political situation,” he said.
The government is blaming the unrest, which the UN estimates have killed more than 5,000 people since March last year, on “terrorists”. Authorities say more than 2,000 members of the army and security forces have been killed.
Referendum on constitution
Muallem said Syria will hold a referendum on a new constitution soon.
“The new Syrian constitution will be put to a referendum within a week or more,” he said.
The committee tasked with drafting Syria’s new constitution has decided to limit presidential terms to a maximum of two seven-year mandates, Al-Watan newspaper reported on Tuesday.
The paper said the draft constitution would be submitted to Assad in “the coming days” before being put to a referendum.
|Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr comments on Muallem’s address|
Late President Hafez al-Assad ruled for five consecutive terms, while the current president is due to complete his second seven-year mandate in 2014.
Tuesday’s developments came after Saudi Arabia said on Monday that its observers would be withdrawn.
“Gulf Co-operation Council [GCC] states have decided to follow Saudi Arabia’s decision to pull out its observers from the Arab League mission in Syria,” the regional bloc said in a statement on Tuesday.
It said the GCC was “certain the bloodshed and killing of innocents would continue, and that the Syrian leadership would not abide by the Arab League’s resolutions”.
The GCC groups Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. There are 52 out of 165 observers from those states in Syria, 22 of them from Saudi Arabia.
After the announcement, the Arab League said its permanent member states would meet later on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Syria.
“The meeting of representatives today will discuss the fate of the monitoring mission, whether it continues or withdraws,”
Sudan’s envoy to the League, Kamal Hassan Ali, told the Reuters news agency.
UN meeting request
The Arab League also formally requested a meeting with UN chief Ban Ki-moon in New York to discuss its plan for resolving the Syria crisis and to ask for the Security Council’s support, according to Arab League deputy leader Ahmed Ben Helli.
Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, reporting from the UN headquarters in New York, said that Western nations would be pushing a new draft resolution to be presented to the Security Council later in the week.
“Russia and China vetoed previous resolutions on Syria… but in light of the Arab League resolution on Sunday, it will be interesting to see if that changes,” he said.
“If we look at the Security Council resolutions in Libya, what really was the turning point is the regional call for UN assistance. There is a regional call now for the UN support [in Syria].”
Syria on Monday condemned the league’s initiative calling on Assad to delegate power to his vice-president and for elections to be held under a “national unity government”.
“Syria rejects the decisions taken which are outside an Arab working plan, and considers them an attack on its national sovereignty and a flagrant interference in internal affairs,” Syrian state television quoted a government official as saying .
The Arab League’s observer mission decided to extend its mission after its one-month mandate expired last week.
General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi of Sudan, leading the team, said on Monday that violence in Syria dipped after the observers arrived.
“After the arrival of the mission, the intensity of violence began to decrease,” he said. “The mission’s role is monitoring and is not stopping the killing or stopping the destruction or otherwise.”
Dabi also maintained that “heavy military equipment” was removed from “all cities” in Syria.
His comments were widely criticised by the opposition.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) activist group has said at least 840 Syrians have been killed since December 23, when the first Arab League delegates entered Syria.
Critics say the Arab mission has only provided diplomatic cover for Assad to pursue a crackdown that has already killed more than 5,000 people since protests erupted in March 2011, according to a UN count.
“Al-Dabi’s report speaking of armed groups gave the regime more justification to intensify the killing”
– Hadi Abdallah, activist from Homs
On Tuesday, an activist network reported the death of at least 68 people, of whom 37 were killed in the central province of Homs.
The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC) activist network said at least 18 people were killed when government forces shelled two buildings in the Homs’ neighbourhood of Bab Tadmor.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Homs, Hadi al-Abdallah, an activist with the SRGC, said: “The buildings were six-storey buildings. Many families remain missing. It is hard to confirm the exact number of those killed.”
He added that there was an escalation of violence on the part of government forces, especially in Homs’ old neighbourhoods.
“Al-Dabi’s report speaking of armed groups gave the regime more justification to intensify the killing,” he said.
Elsewhere in Syria, activists said security forces resumed their military assult on Hama, mainly in al-Hamidiyeh neighbourhood, and that military tanks were present in most of the city’s main streets.
The LCC said at least seven people were killed there.
Despite the violence, several anti-government protests took place across the country on Tuesday evening, activists said.