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In Syria, Arab League observers wonder what else they can do

By Alexandra Zavis and Rima Marrouch, Los Angeles Times –

DAMASCUS, Syria — As the clock ran out on the Arab League’s mission in Syria, the observers were largely confined to their hotels while the 22-member regional bloc fended off accusations of failure and wrestled with the problem of what to do next.

The one-month mission was intended to determine whether the Syrian government was keeping its pledge to end its crackdown on a 10-month uprising. But from the start, there was widespread doubt about whether it had the resources and independence to do the job.

The question as the deadline expired Thursday was whether an expanded but still limited mission was better than no mission at all.

With no sign of a letup in the bloodshed in Syria, Arab foreign ministers meeting Sunday in Cairo must decide whether to keep going. The mission can be extended for a month with the agreement of the Syrian government.

Opposition activists, human rights groups and at least one former monitor charge that the mission only provided a cover for more killings, and are urging the Arab League to refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council. It’s far from certain, however, that that would be any more effective.

“Without the correct tools, without the correct authority … we can’t do the job,” said one observer, who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the Arab League has instructed monitors not to speak to journalists. “Which is sad, because people are dying on both sides every day.”

Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Dabi of Sudan, the head of the mission, is expected to recommend an extension, provided that changes are made to bolster the mission.

But Syrian officials note pointedly that there is no provision in their Dec. 19 agreement with the Arab League to expand the mandate.

Among the options under discussion is the deployment of Arab troops to provide security for the monitors instead of relying on Syrian forces, observers said. They would also like more authority to intervene when they see abuses, and want full access to detainees, including at military sites that are off-limits.

About 400 people were killed in the 10 days after the first observers arrived last month, according to U.N. estimates.

The toll continued to rise Thursday with as many as 26 people reported killed by security forces around the country, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees.

This week, the emir of Qatar, which orchestrated Syria’s suspension from the Arab League and the imposition of sanctions, called for the deployment of Arab forces to “stop the killing.”

The Syrian National Council, the country’s most prominent exiled opposition bloc, is urging the league to seek U.N. Security Council backing for the establishment of a “safe zone” to protect civilians and military defectors who have turned their guns against the government. But if the league does not agree, the group plans to take its proposal to the Security Council directly, spokesman Ausama Monajed said.

Defectors fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army are going a step further, calling for the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force with the authority to intervene to protect civilians.

Syria has rejected the proposals as attacks on its sovereignty. It says it is committed to implementing the league-negotiated peace plan and blames the continued violence on foreign-backed armed gangs aiming to sow sectarian strife.

Any effort for a greater U.N. role is likely to be opposed by Russia and China.

Russia is a longtime ally of Syria, and it has accused the West of turning a blind eye to attacks committed by opposition militants. It has vowed to use its veto power to block any action that could lead to military intervention.

“If some intend to use force at all cost … we can hardly prevent that from happening,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on Wednesday. “But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience. They won’t get any authorization from the U.N. Security Council.”

China, another ally of Damascus, says security has improved since the monitors arrived, suggesting the mission has been effective.

Arab League officials reported this month that Syria’s government had taken some steps toward fulfilling its obligations since the monitors arrived, including pulling tanks out of a number of residential areas and releasing thousands of prisoners. International journalists have also been admitted in recent weeks for stays of up to 10 days.

But members of the observer mission say they feel hamstrung and do not have the tools they need to operate in sometimes dangerous conditions. The league’s vehicles have been attacked by protesters on both sides of the conflict and gunfire periodically erupts in their presence.

The clock started ticking on the mission the day Syria signed the agreement with the league, leaving little time to recruit personnel or prepare for the effort.

While some of the roughly 160 monitors have experience in human rights work, others are diplomats and military personnel with little or no background in monitoring or documenting abuses. At the request of the Arab League, the U.N. agreed to provide a few days’ training for any additional monitors but would not accompany them on the mission.

Human rights groups say the mission’s reliance on the Syrian government for its security compromised the independence of the monitors and their ability to speak to victims without putting them in danger.

Security forces have refused to accompany the monitors into trouble spots where they are not in control. On Sunday, a team of five observers decided to venture into the contested border town of Zabadani on their own. But other groups have not always been willing to take the risk.

When the observers showed up Tuesday in Kisweh, on the southern outskirts of Damascus, the capital, residents poured into the streets for an impromptu demonstration. A protester whose face was covered with a scarf spray-painted “S.O.S.” on a wall and pavement. Hours later, activists said, security forces stormed the area.

“When they didn’t find me, they threatened to take my 10-year-old brother,” said one of the activists. “My mother pleaded with them and they let him ago.” The next day, he said, security forces arrested six people at checkpoints using video collected from the visit.

The observers said they would contact the governor, but acknowledged that they were powerless to ensure the detainees’ release.

The arrests came the same week the government announced an amnesty for prisoners arrested during the uprising. Monitors in Damascus witnessed the release of scores of protesters but said they did not know how many had been arrested.

As a stream of frightened-looking men emerged late one night from Arda prison clutching plastic bags with their possessions, several busloads of prisoners rolled in through the gates.

One of the passengers yelled through the window: “We are security prisoners! … There is no amnesty for us!”

When an officer announced that the last of the demonstrators had been released, a desperate mother clutched at an officer’s jacket and begged him for her son.

“He is young,” she wept. “He’s only in the ninth grade.”

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