With violence rising, Arab League suspends Syria mission

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 28, 2012 

CAIRO — The Arab League suspended its Syria observation mission Saturday, saying it was too dangerous to continue, as battles between security and opposition forces raged just outside the capital, Damascus.

The Arab League has joined the United States and other powers in calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign, but the embattled leader shows no signs of budging as a 10-month revolt pushes the country to the brink of civil war.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said in a statement that he was suspending the mission, "given the critical deterioration of the situation in Syria and the continued use of violence." A final decision about whether the mission will end is expected within days.

Syrian state television said the regime "regrets and is surprised" by the suspension, news wires reported.

The Arab League sent teams of monitors to Syria to observe the implementation of an Arab-brokered peace plan that virtually all parties had deemed dead on arrival. Human rights groups criticized the mission chief's checkered past in Sudan, some monitors quit in protest of the regime's stage-managing of their tours, and protesters complained that the Arab League was only buying time for Assad.

Assad, meanwhile, has criticized the Arab League as useless and made little apparent effort to comply with the plan's call for violence from both sides to cease immediately. The regime continues to besiege rebellious towns and a growing number of rebels are fighting back, aided by army deserters who've formed the Free Syrian Army.

Fierce battles erupted Saturday in three rebel-held Damascus suburbs. The Reuters news agency, citing Syrian activists reached by telephone, reported that about 100 defectors had joined the rebels, bringing along three tanks they operated.

Activist groups say six residents were killed in the fighting. Syria's state news agency SANA said "terrorist groups" had killed seven soldiers in the Damascus suburbs. The reports could not be independently verified because of Syria's severe restrictions on media.

The United Nations said last month that Syrian security forces had killed some 5,000 people since the uprising began. The Syrian government says 2,000 of its forces had been killed in the same period.

Despite its failure to stop the bloodshed, the Arab League monitors' mandate was extended for another month. The mission began to crumble last week, when Gulf states withdrew their observers because of the lack of progress. Arab foreign ministers are said to be discussing a full withdrawal of monitors in a possible early end to the mission.

Diplomacy, sanctions and other international pressure so far have failed to resolve the crisis, forcing Western leaders to begin seriously considering some form of intervention, such as the NATO campaign that was vital to toppling Libya's late Moammar Gadhafi.

There's little appetite for such a move, however, with the U.S. in an election year and other players nervous about the risk of worsening regional instability with a direct attack on Assad's regime. U.S. archenemy Iran is Assad's main supporter and Syria shares borders with other volatile states such as Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

Turkey, once a close ally of Assad, held talks in Istanbul on Saturday with several representatives of Gulf states, which have been the most vocal among Arab nations in their condemnation of Assad. A joint statement released after the meetings didn't endorse military intervention — but didn't rule it out, either.

"International efforts should be focused on bringing the bloodshed in Syria to an immediate end and paving the ground for the initiation of a political transition process in line with the legitimate demands and aspirations of the Syrian people," the statement said.

(McClatchy special correspondent Ipek Yezdani contributed reporting from Istanbul.)

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