DAMASCUS, Syria — The mandate of a much-criticized Arab League monitoring mission in Syria expired Thursday amid calls from opposition activists to abandon the effort as a failure.
Arab ministers are scheduled to meet Sunday to decide whether to extend the mission for another month or seek tougher action against the government led by President Bashar al-Assad, whose crackdown on a 10-month-old uprising has left at least 5,000 people dead.
The estimated 125 monitors who are still in the country are awaiting the league’s decision in their hotels after delivering a report on their activities Thursday. About 40 monitors have already left because they felt unsafe, said an Arab League official in Cairo who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the news media.
Many activists and human rights groups, who initially campaigned for monitors to be admitted to the country, say they want Arab leaders to give up the mission and refer the Syrian crisis to the U.N. Security Council in the hope of securing tougher world condemnation of the crackdown.
The Syrian government, which resisted the dispatch of the monitors for weeks, has said it will agree to an extension.
The mission was widely criticized from the outset as too small and too restricted in its access to properly observe an uprising that has engulfed broad swaths of the country, although the two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, remain largely unaffected.
The monitors are drawn from Arab countries that themselves routinely disregard human rights, and the mission’s leader, Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, has been accused of complicity in war crimes in Sudan.
“The Arab leaders hate the Arab Spring because it brought democracy to the area, and none of them are democrats,” said Omar Shakir, an activist reached in the city of Homs who is among those who want the mission called off in favor of U.N. action.
But the Arab League official said he expected the monitors’ report to be harshly critical of Assad. There have been bigger demonstrations in more locations since the monitors arrived, an indication that their presence has given a boost to protesters, he said, adding that it has also drawn world attention to the crisis. “You cannot call it a failure,” he said.
The government has also begun issuing visas to journalists, who have been almost completely denied access to the country for the past year. Allowing news media coverage of the events in Syria is one of the key demands of the Arab peace plan under which the monitors have been deployed.
But the mission’s main purpose — observing the government’s compliance with the peace plan — does not appear to have been fulfilled, mainly because there is little compliance to observe, the activists say.
The United Nations said last week that the killings had increased since the monitors arrived in December, and on Thursday, the human rights advocacy group Avaaz said 746 people had died during the mission. Activists say soldiers hold fire when monitors arrive in protest hot spots and then resume shooting when they have gone. The opposition Local Coordinating Committees said 26 people were killed Thursday.
At the same time, an escalating insurgency by rebels fighting in the name of the Free Syrian Army threatens to push the crisis in Syria beyond the reach of any peace plan.
The pullout of government troops and tanks from the mountain resort of Zabadani on Wednesday after five days of fighting between rebels and loyalists was hailed by members of the opposition as evidence that armed struggle is more likely than peaceful protests to succeed in pressuring the government.
Arab League monitors had visited Zabadani earlier in the week, but an activist in the town, who gave his name as Fares Mohammed, said they had nothing to do with the subsequent withdrawal.
“They stayed an hour and a half, and then they left,” he said. “They are just watching; they are not protecting us. There is no purpose if they stay here.”