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Arab League seeks joint U.N force for Syria

By Omnia Al Desoukie, McClatchy Newspapers –

CAIRO — The Arab League voted Sunday to seek a joint United Nations force for Syria as regional diplomats met in Cairo to discuss their dwindling options for stopping the bloodshed in a nearly year-old uprising against President Bashar Assad.

However, the League stopped short of recognizing the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, after objections from some member states about the group’s credibility and reach. The council, made up mainly of exiles, had hoped for the same recognition the Arab League extended to a similar Libyan group, whose members went on to lead that country’s transition.

Analysts described the request for troops as symbolic but unfeasible.

Syria isn’t likely to accept such a force, Russia and China are sure to block it at the UN, and the Syrian opposition is divided on the prospect of foreign boots on the ground. After toothless censures and a disastrous monitoring mission, however, there isn’t much else the Arab League can do.

“They seem hopeless,” said activist Rami Jarah, who fled Syria a few months ago and is involved with opposition work from exile in Egypt. “Whatever they’re doing now should’ve happened months ago and, the later they are, the higher the expectations.”

The Arab League also called for a new monitoring mission to replace an ill-fated observer program that was plagued by internal divisions, ill-prepared or unenthusiastic monitors, government restrictions and several episodes of violence.

The renewed monitoring program is expected to include more sophisticated equipment and better organization. At the meeting, Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby read a letter of support for the expanded mission from officials in Russia, which, with Iran and China, is among Assad’s last allies.

The old mission chief, a Sudanese general named Mohamed al Dabi, resigned Sunday. The League proposed Jordanian Foreign Minister Ilah al Khatib, the U.N.’s liaison in last year’s Libyan civil war, as a special envoy.

The Arab League’s resolution also demands an immediate cease-fire and calls on the government to withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from towns and villages.

Syrian television quoted its ambassador to the League as describing its resolution as “a flagrant departure from the group’s charter and a hostile act that targets Syria’s security and stability,” according to a translation by the Reuters news agency.

On Sunday, activists reported four deaths from rocket fire in the rebellious city of Homs, where scores have died in a government offensive this month.

The U.N. said in December that Syrian security forces had killed about 5,000 people since the uprising began. The Syrian government says 2,000 of its forces were killed in the same period. The U.N. has since stopped releasing figures, citing the difficulties in collecting accurate tallies during combat and with severe government restrictions. Most of the front-line news comes from amateur video, which is posted online by activists and is impossible to independently verify.

Meanwhile, a new video from al-Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician-turned-militant who took over after Osama bin Laden’s death, is raising concern about the involvement of extremists in the armed insurgency against Assad.

U.S. officials said last week that the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida was behind two deadly bombings, and that the group was seeking to exploit the turmoil in Syria to reassert its presence after being eclipsed by the Arab Spring protest movements.

In the video, Zawahiri urged Syrians to take up arms rather than to rely on either the West or “corrupt” Arab governments for their rebellion’s success. Assad has long branded the protesters “terrorists” and some opposition members are worried that al-Qaida’s endorsement could weaken domestic and international support for the uprising.

“If we want freedom, we must be liberated from this regime,” Zawahiri said in the video, which was posted online and translated by wire services. “If we want justice, we must retaliate against the regime.”

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