Saudi Arabia Tuesday urged “stern” world action against Syria after the regime’s decision to hold presidential elections and its alleged use of toxic gas against civilians.
Saudi Arabia is one of the main backers of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war increasingly seen as a proxy battle between it and regional rival Iran.
Syria’s plan to hold elections is “an escalation and undermines Arab and international efforts to peacefully resolve the crisis based on the (outcomes of) the Geneva I conference,” said Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.
A 2012 peace conference in the Swiss city called for a transitional government ahead of free and fair elections, with no mention of Assad’s role in the transition.
Syrian daily Al-Watan reported Tuesday that the date for the presidential elections will be announced next week and is expected to be around June.
The international community has criticised Syria’s plan to go ahead with the vote, which would likely see Assad win another seven-year mandate.
This decision, “as well as dangerous information on the regime’s recent use of toxic gases against civilians in the town of Kafr Zita,” in the central Hama province, represent “clear defiance” of the UN Security Council, Faisal said in Riyadh.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said residents choking from poisoning in the rebel-held town of Kafr Zita were hospitalised after bombing raids on Friday.
Activists in the area accused the regime of using chlorine gas, saying it caused “more than 100 cases of suffocation.”
But state television claimed that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, a key force in the revolt, had released chlorine in an attack on the town.
More than 150,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict broke out in March 2011, according to the Observatory.
– No negotiations with Qatar –
Separately, Faisal took a swipe at Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who charged in March that Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Qatar were supporting militant groups in Iraq and across the Middle East, as well as terrorism worldwide.
Saudi Arabia criticised those accusations as “aggressive and irresponsible,” and Faisal said it would be “more useful” if Maliki would “address Iraqi politicians and his people to resolve his country’s problems instead of throwing them at others.”
Iraq has been hit by a year-long surge in violence that has reached levels not seen since 2008, driven in part by the conflict in neighbouring Syria.
Relations have always been strained between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Maliki’s Shiite-led government, backed by Tehran.
Turning to the crisis between his country and Qatar, Faisal insisted there were “no secret negotiations” to defuse tensions.
Last month, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recalled their ambassadors from Doha tar after accusing the fellow Gulf Cooperation Council state of interfering in their internal affairs and of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
GCC countries “are free in their policies, provided they do not harm interests of other members” of the regional grouping, said Faisal.
“As long as these countries adhere to this principle, there will be no problems among GCC states.”
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies are hostile to the Brotherhood, fearing its brand of grassroots activism could undermine their authority.