CAIRO: Arab foreign ministers gathered Sunday to review the record of a widely criticized observer mission to Syria, amid growing calls for the bloc to cede to the United Nations the lead role in trying to end nearly 10 months of bloodshed.
The ministerial committee on Syria was to meet in Cairo, where the Arab League has its headquarters, to be briefed by the head of the mission, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa Al-Dabi.
A team of Arab League monitors has been in Syria since December 26, trying to assess whether President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is complying with a peace accord aimed at ending its deadly crackdown on dissent.
But critics say it has been completely outmaneuvered by the government and has failed to make any progress towards stemming the crackdown. They have called for the mission to pull out.
Dabi — a Sudanese former military intelligence chief who is himself the focus of controversy — said it was too early to judge the mission.
"This is the first time that the Arab League has carried out such a mission," Dabi told Britain’s Observer in an interview. "But it has only just started, so I have not had enough time to form a view."
The Arab League has admitted to "mistakes" but defended the mission, saying it had secured the release of prisoners and the withdrawal of tanks from cities.
It said rather than pull out, it planned to send more observers.
"No plan to withdraw the observers is on the agenda of the Arab ministerial committee meeting on Syria," the bloc’s deputy secretary general, Adnan Issa, told AFP on Saturday.
"We are not talking about a pullout but reinforcing the mission," Issa added.
Sunday’s meeting comes as heavy clashes broke out before dawn between the Syrian army and deserters, leaving 11 of its soldiers dead, according to human rights activists.
Another 20 soldiers were wounded in the fighting in Daraa province, south of the capital, while nine soldiers defected to join the rebel troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In addition to the deadly clashes in the village of Basr Al-Harir, the Britain-based watchdog also reported heavy machinegun exchanges between the army and deserters in the Daraa town of Dael. There was no immediate word on any casualties.
Cradle of the protests against Assad that erupted in March, Daraa has been one of the provinces hardest hit by the deadly crackdown unleashed by his regime.
On Saturday, Syria held funerals for 26 victims of a suicide bombing in Damascus, promising an "iron fist" response.
The opposition pointed the finger of blame for Friday’s bomb in the capital at the regime itself, as it did after similar attacks in the city on December 23 killed 44 people.
Violence in Syria on Saturday claimed the lives of 21 civilians, 17 killed by security force fire and four by a rocket that targeted a pro-regime demonstration, the Observatory said.
Saturday’s funerals took place in the Al-Hassan mosque in the working-class Midan neighborhood where the suicide bomber struck.
As thousands of regime supporters gathered outside, many waving flags, Damascus mufti Bashir Eid preached a funeral sermon in the presence of several ministers.
The official SANA news agency said mourners "denounced the heinous crimes committed by armed terrorist groups."
The regime has consistently asserted that the unrest sweeping the country is the work of armed rebels, not largely peaceful demonstrators as maintained by Western governments and human rights watchdogs.
The United States condemned the Damascus bombing, again calling for Assad to step down, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon said "all violence is unacceptable and must stop immediately."
The Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, said Friday’s bombing "clearly bears the regime’s fingerprints."
It said the UN Security Council had to address the bloodshed, which the world body estimated in December had killed more than 5,000 people since the protests erupted.
The SNC said "a joint effort between the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council represents a first step toward the urgent and necessary measures to assure the protection of civilians, and to ensure that the regime does not commit additional bombings and killings."
So far veto-wielding Security Council permanent members Beijing and
Moscow have blocked efforts by Western governments to secure UN action against Damascus.
On Sunday, a large Russian naval flotilla led by an aircraft carrier was docked in the Syrian port of Tartus in what Damascus state media hailed as a show of solidarity by its Cold War ally.