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Syria Defies Arab League; Death Toll Rises
November 20, 2011

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Syria and the Arab League continue to go head-to-head in a very real high-stakes way, as people keep dying in the streets.

The League had given the government of President Bashar al-Assad a day to cease firing on protesters, but that deadline passed and 24 more people were killed. 

For its part, the Syrian government reiterated its claim that the opposition was now armed and dangerous, a claim borne out by the report of an armed raid on an air force base near Damascus. A group of mutinous soldiers calling themselves the Free Syria Army claimed responsibility for the attack. The government also said during the weekend that a large office building belonging to the ruling Baath party had been hit by a series of rocket-propelled grenades, although witnesses on the scene disputed the account.

Adding the chorus of world leaders calling for Assad's dismissal was Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who preceded a planned visit to Syria by urging Assad to rethink his authoritarian, violent ways. 

Just what the Arab League might do if Syria didn't comply wasn't entirely clear. The League has no army to command, although its 22 members have considerable resources and influence at their disposal, including the ability to impose economic and political sanctions on Syria, actions also threatened by Western nations. 

A similar condemnation of Col. Moammar Gadhafi helped precipitate a United Nations resolution condemning Gadhafi and paved the way for a no-fly zone and NATO airstrikes. So far, however, the U.N. and Western nations have been hesitant to take such actions with regard to Syria. Despite the growing outside opposition, Assad retains a large amount of support in his own country. In fact, a crowd of tens of thousands gathered recently in Damascus to show their support for the government and the military.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said the group would hold crisis talks in the wake of Syria's continued defiance. Among the conditions that were part of a League-brokered peace deal of a few weeks ago was a proposal for several hundred observers to travel to Syria to see for themselves the situation in the streets. Much of information coming out of the country is either under the control of the government or very much second- or third-hand.

The number of civilian deaths since March is more than 3,500, human rights groups say.



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