The Arab League on Saturday suspended its monitoring mission in Syria, as state security forces battled rebels holding three suburbs just outside the capital.
The decision by the Cairo-based bloc comes days after it called for President Bashar Assad to step down, following 10 months of revolt against his rule. The league will take an Arab peace plan to the UN Security Council this week.
“Given the critical deterioration of the situation in Syria and the continued use of violence... it has been decided to immediately stop the work of the Arab League’s mission to Syria pending presentation of the issue to the league’s council,” Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said.
“Syria regrets and is surprised at the Arab decision to stop the work of its monitoring mission after it asked for a one-month extension of its work,” Damascus responded in a news flash on state TV.
“This will have a negative impact and put pressure on [Security Council] deliberations with the aim of calling for foreign intervention and encouraging armed groups to increase violence,” the report continued.
Arab League foreign ministers are expected to discuss early next month the possibility of withdrawing monitors completely, a league official said, but added that the secretary-general could pull monitors out at any time if necessary.
The Arab League’s job was to observe implementation of its peace plan.
Though its mandate was extended for a second month, critics lambasted the mission for its failure to stem bloodshed.
It was further undermined when Gulf states withdrew their monitors last week, saying the team could not stop the violence.
Diplomatic pressure, tempered by continued support from Russia and Iran, has yet to halt Assad’s crackdown on unrest that it blames on foreign-backed terrorists.
Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A.
Burke chairman in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said few in the West are calling explicitly for military intervention in Syria.
“There is no appetite for military intervention in the West. The reasons are simple – you’re dealing with a truly serious military force, you don’t know what would happen if you engaged and there is as yet no serious rebel faction to back,” Cordesman, a former top-level US defense official, told The Jerusalem Post from Washington.
Fighting raged outside three rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Saturday, activists said. The army was trying to prevent insurgents from solidifying a stronghold just 15 minutes outside the capital, they said.
But insurgents were emboldened by a string of reports of army desertions amid the fighting. Activists said a group of deserters brought with them the three tanks they operated.
A spokesman for the rebel forces, known as the Free Syrian Army, said he did not have a complete tally but estimated that more than 100 soldiers had deserted in the area.
Activists told Reuters that rebels who control the towns of Saqba, Kafr Batna and Jisreen were exchanging fire with soldiers. Military forces earlier fired from tanks and had used anti-aircraft guns and mortars, they said.
In the central city of Hama, activists said they found the bodies of 17 men previously in security force custody, shot in the head. The killing took place during a military offensive against the city this week, they said.
On Friday, the Security Council discussed a European-Arab draft resolution aimed at halting the bloodshed.
Britain and France said they hoped to put the draft resolution to a vote this week.
The Arab League’s deputy secretary- general said the group was also in talks with Russia ahead of its Security Council meeting this week.
There was no comment yet from Russian officials, but UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin previously said Russia found the plan unacceptable, though he said it was willing to “engage.”
Russia joined China in vetoing a previous Western draft resolution in October and has since promoted its own draft. Churkin said Moscow wanted a Syrian-led political process, not “an Arab Leagueimposed outcome of a political process that has not yet taken place” or Libyan-style “regime change.”
“In Libya there were no meaningful military forces,” Cordesman said. “There was a revolution that appeared to be on the edge of success, and clear repression of a popular movement by the regime and a very narrow target base.
“In retrospect there was a great deal more optimism about how that opposition would unify than has so far been borne out.”
The opposition Syrian National Council said it was joining the Arab League at its Security Council meeting to request “protection.”
The SNC has previously called for international forces to implement a no-fly zone in Syria.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al- Faisal said Saturday that only the Arab League as a whole body could recognize the SNC, Al-Arabiya television reported.
Speaking in Istanbul after a meeting between the foreign ministers of Turkey and the six Gulf Arab countries, Faisal said that the legal “question of recognizing [the SNC] will be between the nations” of the Arab League.
Six residents were killed and dozens were wounded Saturday as fighting raged, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
A video uploaded by activists, purported to be from a rebel-held Damascus suburb, showed smoke rising from behind a mosque and heavy gunfire erupting in the background as residents screamed “Allahu akbar.”
The Free Syrian Army agreed to a truce a week ago for state forces to withdraw from rebel-held Zabadani, 30 minutes from Damascus.
It says the number of desertions there had forced the army’s hand.
Fighting also flared in central Homs province, activists said, after an oil pipeline was blown up on Saturday morning.
Turkish officials say the number of Syrians seeking sanctuary in Turkey has risen in the past six weeks, with 50 to 60 arriving daily, taking the total living in refugee camps to nearly 9,600.
More than 6,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon.
The United Nations said in December that more than 5,000 people had been killed by Syrian forces.
The state news agency SANA said “terrorist groups” killed seven soldiers, including an officer, in the Damascus suburbs on Saturday.
SANA also reported the burial of 28 members of Syrian security forces killed in several revolt hotspots across the country, showing pictures of bloodied corpses and a funeral procession lead by soldiers carrying flower wreaths.
Cordesman said many questions remain before intervention in Syria can become a serious option: “Applying force to do what, and in aid of whom? Since no one can answer those questions yet – and they are almost unanswerable until an opposition emerges in Syria that’s strong enough to back – that appetite does not exist.
“Are there people calling for intervention? Yes,” he said. “But there are people in the West who are firmly convinced the Mayan calendar foretells the end of the world. At this point in time they have about equal influence.”Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.