BEIRUT - With the threat of more sanctions looming, Syria said Monday that it was ready to sign a deal soon with the Arab League to let foreign observers into the country to monitor a plan aimed at ending months of deadly unrest.
The government responded "positively" to a draft protocol and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem sent a letter late Sunday to the league's secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said in the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Makdissi added, however, that Syria wants what he described as minor changes and clarifications included in the document, among them a declaration that the league opposes foreign "interference" in the crisis. Syria also wants the document to be signed in Damascus and expects that punitive measures imposed by the 22-member league, including a suspension and sanctions, will be lifted as soon as that is done, Makdissi said.
Elaraby dismissed that demand, saying in Cairo that the sanctions would remain in force until Arab foreign ministers make another decision, according to news service reports. He also said Moallem's letter contained "new components" that league members would need to discuss before a decision is reached.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government has repeatedly declared support for the league's peace plan even as it ignores deadlines - most recently on Sunday - to accept monitors to observe the withdrawal of security forces from urban areas, the release of political prisoners, and other provisions.
Officials have maintained that the league's proposal for the observer mission impinges on Syria's sovereignty. Critics contend that Assad's regime is trying to buy time to pursue its crackdown on the eight-month-long uprising.
Rima Filhan, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group, said, "If the regime had good intentions, it would have accepted the Arab League proposal when it was first issued . . . and would have allowed international observers and media into Syria."
State-run media on Monday published photos and footage from a live-fire military exercise involving missile units, tanks and helicopters, a show of force that did not evoke a willingness to bow to international demands, though Makdissi said the maneuvers were routine.
The armed forces are one of the key pillars of Assad's rule. But there have been a growing number of defections in recent months, particularly by low-level Sunni Muslim conscripts who have started fighting Assad's regime, contributing to a sharp escalation in the bloodshed.