Anti-government protesters in Syria called for international protection on Friday as Arab states sought to promote a plan to bring a diplomatic end to the country’s political crisis.
Regional and international powers are under increasing pressure to address the situation in Syria, where more than 2,000 people have been killed in a crackdown on dissent.
Street protesters in Syria, who nominate a theme for the nationwide protests each Friday, declared this week’s demonstrations the day of “international protection”.
The Arab League is this weekend expected to present an initiative to the regime in Damascus calling for legislative elections in six months but keeping President Bashar al-Assad in place until 2014.
While the US and key European powers have said Mr Assad should step down, the Arab League’s plan envisages Mr Assad implementing radical reforms that would lead to free presidential elections. The proposal is also said to include the formation of a transition national unity government.
Diplomats familiar with the plan say that even this relatively gentle diplomatic move has met with fierce resistance from Damascus.
Nabil al-Arabi, the head of the Arab League, was forced to delay his trip to Syria until Saturday.
One senior Arab diplomat says Mr Arabi has also been warned that Mr Assad will not accept any document involving an Arab diplomatic intervention in Syria, having previously seen off a 15-day timetable for beginning reforms proposed by Turkey last month.
Opposition activists, too, are opposed to any plan not involving a change of president, which has been the main demand of demonstrators.
But many have sought to play down their opposition, expecting that the regime would not be willing to accept the Arab League terms.
“It is a silly, weak attempt at resolving the crisis,” said one Syrian analyst. “But let the regime accept it in any case – it would at least be acknowledging that there is an opposition.”
Arab League foreign ministers are due to meet in Cairo next week to discuss Syria and the results of Mr Arabi’s visit. Diplomats say a rejection of the Arab League initiative will raise the pressure for action against Syria at the UN Security Council, where Russia is resisting US and European Union attempts for a resolution.
In Washington, the Obama administration said the fact that Damascus delayed Mr Arabi’s visit “speaks to whether this regime is interested in peace at all”.
“By presenting a political solution, the Arabs are trying to put pressure on Russia and China to act,” said the senior diplomat.
Russia is also attempting to speak to both sides in the Syrian conflict, and continues to insist that Mr Assad can survive the crisis.
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, said this week that Moscow was “ready to support different approaches” to Syria, while stressing that they must not be based on “one-sided condemnations”.
Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin’s envoy to the Middle East, met Syrian opposition figures on Friday and will hold talks with Buthaina Shaaban, Mr Assad’s adviser, on Monday.
“The chances for a political settlement are still open,” he said this week, according to a Reuters news agency report. “We are trying to bring them together – the opposition and the government.”
Even Iran, Mr Assad’s closest ally, has been playing up the need for reforms in Syria. President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, according to his official website, told the Radiotelevisao Portuguesa on Wednesday that “regional countries can themselves help the Syrian government and people to implement the needed reforms and tackle their problems”.
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