NEW: Arab League leader says the group has not agreed to suspend sanctions
Syria says it agrees to admit observers, but with conditions
An Arab League deadline for Syria to accept observers or face new sanctions has expired
Syria says Arab League sanctions should expire as soon as it signs the agreement
Syria agreed Monday to Arab League demands that it allow observers into the country, but on the condition that the group immediately drop sanctions and agree to amendments that league officials have previously rejected.
The league’s deadline for Syria to respond to its demands to admit observers or face additional sanctions expired at midnight Sunday.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem sent a letter to Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Arabi on Monday saying that by signing the agreement, Syria would consider all of the Arab League’s resolutions on Syria void – including its suspension of the country and sanctions against it, the state-run SANA news service reported.
El-Arabi told CNN that the group’s foreign ministers will have to consider the proposal before any decisions are made.
“The Syrian’s acceptance of the protocol does not mean that we will suspend the sanctions,” he said.
Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters that Syria is committed to reforms to end a bloody crisis that the United Nations says has cost more than 4,000 lives since it began in February with Arab Spring-inspired protests calling for reforms.
Makdissi pointed to decisions to pull back some troops and release some prisoners as evidence.
But he also hinted at government concerns about the the intentions of some Arab League states.
“Diplomacy is an art,” Makdissi said. “We delivered our best, and we believe that such an offer cannot be rejected. We are so keen on solving everything within the Arab framework, but again, we need to be realistic about the true intentions out there.”
He added, “We did our part of the deal, and we are waiting a positive response from the (Arab League).”
Syrian officials decided to sign the protocol after making changes that Makdissi said do not change the core of the Arab League’s protocol.
Those changes include changing the title of the protocol so that it does not suggest a government crackdown on protesters, requiring that observers coordinate with the Syrian government and changing references to government violence to violence on all sides – especially to include violence by what the government describes as “armed terrorist gangs” that it says are preying on civilians.
In the letter sent to el-Arabi, Syria agrees to admit observers and stop the crackdown, according to an Arab League official who is not authorized to speak to the media on the matter. But Syria wants the Arab League to agree to its amendments, cancel all sanctions and agree to sign the document in Syria, the official said.
Over the weekend, ministers meeting in Doha, Qatar, agreed to freeze the assets of more top Syrian officials, reduce flights in and out of the country by half and impose a complete ban on weapons shipments to Syria, a statement from the Arab League said.
Those are on top of economic sanctions the group announced in November. The sanctions included cutting ties with the nation’s central bank, banning high-profile officials from visiting Arab countries and freezing government assets.
Syria had previously agreed in principal to the Arab League demand for observers but no final agreement was reached.
Activists groups say the death toll continues to rise. The Local Coordinating Committees of Syria, an opposition umbrella group, said 22 people had been killed Sunday. All but one of the deaths occurred in the city of Homs, the scene of much of the recent unrest, the group said.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the toll at 40, including five soldiers who had defected and taken up arms against the government. The deaths included 26 in Homs, three in the suburbs of Damascus and six in Idlib, near the Turkish border.
CNN is unable to verify the reports because Syrian officials have restricted access to the country by reporters.
CNN’s Saad Abedine and journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report.