Arab League monitors to remain in Syria despite criticisms

The Arab League on Sunday demanded that the Syrian government cease a bloody crackdown on protests but affirmed its commitment to monitoring the situation there, despite criticism that the observers have been ineffectual at stopping violence.

The move defied opposition politicians and activists who want the Syria mission halted and the issue referred to the U.N. Security Council. Many of them are calling for international military intervention.

Five foreign ministers and other Arab officials discussed a report containing the early findings of a group of monitors who have been working in the country since Dec. 27. The monitors have been observing the implementation of an agreement by the Syrian government to halt military operations in cities, stop violence against peaceful protesters and free political prisoners.

The league issued a statement saying it would continue its mission until Jan. 19 and then assess the full report. The statement asked the Syrian government to support the 165 monitors in the country and allow them to work freely.

The statement also requested that U.N. technical help be given to the team, but the language did not go far enough for opposition politicians who had gathered on the sidelines of the meeting and had hoped the issue would be referred to the Security Council.

“All we want is protection of civilians,” said Adib Shishakly, a member of the Syrian National Council opposition group. “But do I think the protesters are waiting for such a meeting to complete the revolution? No.”

Shishakly presented meeting attendees with a letter calling on the Arab League to seek a Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter that would allow for the use of an international armed force to maintain peace and security.

An Arab League official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly, said that the early findings contained much evidence of brutality against civilians but that the findings were not being published yet because of fears about the monitors’ safety.

Activists say that about 300 civilians have been killed since monitors began their work almost two weeks ago and that the mission has not stopped the bloodshed.

“What we want is to lessen the losses, human losses,” Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani, the Qatari prime minister and foreign minister, told reporters after the meeting.

A crowd of more than 100 people, including Syrian opponents of the government of President Bashar al-Assad and their Egyptian supporters, gathered outside the opulent Fairmont hotel in Cairo where the meeting was held, as officials from countries including Egypt, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia met inside.

The protesters demanded that the Arab League end its mission, with some saying the monitors were incompetent and biased.

“I want them to admit that they have failed to stop the massacres and refer the issue to the U.N.,” said activist Osama al-Malouhi.

Those in the small crowd waved the green-striped flags with three stars adopted by the Syrian opposition, and they sang and danced while an effigy of Assad dangled from a noose in a nearby tree.

“The truth is that the oppression is clear now, because of the protests, but the reality is that we have been oppressed for 40 years,” said Aisha Atta, a Syrian activist and academic. She favors military intervention and expressed frustration with the monitors, who she said were not objective.

Another Syrian activist, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals, said the monitoring mission was giving Assad’s government more time to quash the protests.

According to U.N. estimates, more than 5,000 people have died in the nearly 10-month-old uprising, which has been met with a brutal crackdown.

But it is not clear how much impact the calls for U.N. Security Council action will have, even if the monitors complete their mission and report back on Jan. 19. “Nobody’s thinking seriously about the possibility of military intervention at this stage,” said a Western diplomat familiar with the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

The tipping point for radical change in Syria, the diplomat added, would have to come from within, possibly with large-scale defections from the army.

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