BEIRUT (AP) — Bashar Assad's regime would appear to be setting itself on a collision course: It let in outside observers for the first time Thursday to monitor his commitment to halting the crackdown on dissent, even as his security forces unleashed a fiercer onslaught this week, killing more than 200 in two days.
But the Syrian president and his inner circle are veterans at playing for time, maneuvering and denying realities on the ground, and they seem confident they can deflect pressure from Arab neighbors without easing their campaign to crush the uprising.
As an advance team for the Arab League observers flew into Damascus on Thursday, activists said the regime was already acting to prevent the mission from seeing protesters arrested in the crackdown, which is supposed to be part of its mandate. Thousands of prisoners have been moved into military facilities, which are off limits to the monitors, two dissidents said, citing reports from sources on the ground.
By allowing the observers in, Syria has avoided a worse scenario for the time being, defusing Arab League threats to ask the U.N. Security Council for action against Damascus.
The strategy, opponents and outside observers say, is to keep international pressure at bay for as long as possible while the regime tries to snuff out the uprising. Activists said given the high death toll of the past few days, the Syrian government appears to be furiously trying to control the situation on the ground before the full monitoring team arrives.
Tuesday saw the deadliest single attack by government forces so far in the nine-month crackdown.
A witness and activist groups said about 110 unarmed civilians fled the mountain village of Kfar Owaid near the Turkish border and were trapped in a valley by military forces, who then proceeded to systematically kill all of them in an hours-long barrage with tanks, bombs and gunfire. No one survived the onslaught, the activists said.
Government forces appeared by Wednesday evening to have gained full control of the rebellious Jabal al-Zawiya region, where Kfar Owaid is located. The region has been the scene of clashes between troops and army defectors, as well as weeks of intense anti-government protests. An activist who was on the run from the village said thousands of troops and special forces were deployed.
"There are tanks and checkpoints every few meters, snipers everywhere," the activist told The Associated Press by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear for his safety.
Fresh raids and gunfire by government forces on Thursday killed at least 19 people, most of them in the central city of Homs and northern Idlib province, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.
After Tuesday's bloodshed, Syria's former ally Turkey said the regime was "turning the country into a bloodbath," and the Obama administration accused it of continuing to "mow down" its people.
But Damascus has shown itself willing to shrug off world outrage over its onslaught against protesters, in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died since March.
As the first observers arrived, the Syrian government sought to emphasize its own losses in the turmoil. It said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council and Rights Council that more than 2,000 soldiers and members of the security forces have died in attacks in the past nine months. The U.N. has said that its count includes around 1,000 soldiers.
The regime also accused the U.N. of bias, saying U.N. reports claiming a brutal crackdown were false and that the world body was ignoring the presence of terrorists operating in Syria. From the start of the uprising, Damascus has depicted the protests not as a popular movement but as the work of foreign-backed armed gangs.
In part, that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Far from being crushed, the uprising has morphed from peaceful protests into an armed insurrection by dissident troops who have launched bloody attacks on regime forces.
U.N. General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser warned Thursday that if the Arab League mission fails, its members will bring the issue of the Syrian government's violence to the United Nations.
"As president of the General Assembly, we're ready to mediate to help restore stability and security," he told a news conference in New York.
But Al-Nasser, a former Qatar ambassador to the U.N., said he will wait to see if Syria stops its violent crackdown before embarking on any mediation effort.
Haitham al-Maleh, a leader of the main opposition Syrian National Council, said the regime "is so focused on killing off and crushing the revolt that it is not thinking with logic, it is cornered and only thinking of ways to survive and hang on to power."
Assad already succeeded in keeping observers away for nearly two months as the military assault continued. He agreed in early November to an Arab League initiative that called for halting the crackdown, pulling military forces from city streets, starting talks with the opposition and letting in the observers.
But his government demanded changes in the observers' mandate, which the league refused. The 22-member body took the unprecedented steps of suspending Syria's membership and imposing economic sanctions and threatened to turn to the U.N. before Damascus finally accepted the league's protocol for the mission last week.
In theory, the observers would be the world's first direct look into the conflict. The country has been largely sealed off since March, with the regime barring international journalists and restricting local ones. Information has come from activists' videos posted on the Internet and from local witnesses.
But there are plenty of ways for Damascus to limit what the mission sees.
The advance team that flew in Thursday is to work out logistics before 20 military and rights experts arrive Sunday. Another team of 100 observers will leave for Syria within two weeks, according to the Arab plan. A total of 500 observers are planned.
The advance team will work with the Syrians on defining locations to send the observers, according to the team's chief Assistant Secretary-General Sameer Seif el-Yazal. That suggests Damascus will have an advance idea of their movements — and may have a say in directing them.
The opposition expects Syrian officials and security will accompany the team, hampering their activities. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said this week that the observers will be "free" in their movements and "under the protection of the Syrian government," but will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.
Opposition figure al-Maleh and Washington-based dissident Ammar Abdul-Hamid both reported that imprisoned protesters were being moved to military camps.
Al-Maleh said he also had reports the regime is forming committees of 20 to 30 people in towns and cities who will follow the observers around and attempt to deceive them with false reports and testimony.
Abdul-Hamid warned that Damascus is also likely to try to fill the monitoring teams with experts from countries sympathetic to the regime, such as Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria, which could water down any criticism.
Syrian opposition members have already criticized the Arab League's choice of a Sudanese officer, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, to head the observers.
Abdul-Hamid warned in comments posted on his blog that the monthlong observer mission will just give the regime more time to kill with impunity.
"The killing will continue, and the situation on the ground will worsen," he said. "This is not a protocol over sending monitors, but a new lease on life."
Associated Press Writer Edith Lederer contributed from the United Nations.
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