New protests in Syria as Russia surprises West
Syria activists called new protests Friday nine months into their uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime after Damascus's longtime ally Moscow showed signs of toughening its stance.
Organisers urged demonstrators to vent their frustration at the Arab League after the bloc postponed an emergency foreign ministers' meeting that had been set for Saturday to give more time for Damascus to agree to a deal to end the bloodshed to avoid sanctions.
But Western governments which have been pushing for tough measures against the Assad regime to punish its deadly crackdown gave a guarded welcome to Moscow's surprise drafting of a new, stronger-worded UN Security Council text.
Organisers called for a large turnout at the main weekly demonstrations after noon prayers, ahead of a shutdown of shops and businesses called for Saturday.
"The Arab League is killing us -- enough deadlines," they set as the slogan.
The bloc approved a package of sanctions against Damascus on November 27 after it failed to meet a deadline to agree to an observer mission to monitor implementation of an Arab plan to protect Syrian civilians.
But on Sunday, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem wrote to the Arab League saying that Syria would accept the monitors under certain conditions, including the lifting of the sanctions.
The bloc's number two Ahmed Ben Helli said late Thursday that the planned foreign ministers' meeting had been postponed indefinitely while talks continued with Damascus on its offer.
Also Thursday the Arab League held new talks with the Syrian opposition on the eve of the opening in Tunisia of a three-day congress of the Syrian National Council.
SNC leader Burhan Ghaliun said it was vital that the opposition close ranks after the formation in Istanbul on Thursday of a rival National Alliance.
"We need to unite the opposition and make it stronger. We need to emerge from this congress with a higher level of organisation, clearer targets and more momentum," Ghaliun told AFP.
The SNC is generally regarded as the main civilian opposition coalition and includes the local committees running protests in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood as well as parties representing the Kurdish and Assyrian minorities.
However, announcing the formation of the National Alliance, Mohammed Bessam Imadi, a former Syrian ambassador to Sweden, charged that the SNC had "lost contact with local revolutionary movements in Syria."
The Syrian opposition has been pushing hard for the UN Security Council to take tough action against Damascus after a European draft that would have threatened "targeted measures" against regime figures was blocked by Beijing and Moscow in October.
The new text circulated by Russia late on Thursday still makes no mention of sanctions but strongly condemns the violence by "all parties, including disproportionate use of force by Syrian authorities," according to a copy obtained by AFP.
In line with Moscow's insistence that its ally has been been facing an armed rebellion not the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations cited by the West, the draft also raises concern over "the illegal supply of weapons to the armed groups in Syria."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed renewed criticism of that position but said the United States hoped it could work with Russia on the text.
"There are some issues in it that we would not be able to support. There's unfortunately a seeming parity between the government and peaceful protesters," she said.
"But we are going to study the draft carefully."
Analysts suggested that the Russian move was more a change of tactics than of policy towards its Cold War ally.
"Russia's position on Syria -- that there is no need to topple Assad as without him things would be even worse -- has not changed," said Alexei Malashenko, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
"The resolution has been put forward to show goodwill. The West's positive reaction to the draft is diplomatic more than anything."
© 2011 AFP