Beirut, Jan 23 : A clash between Syrian forces and army defectors today erupted in a suburb of the tightly held capital of Damascus, adding urgency just as the Arab League was extending an observers' mission that so far has failed to end long months of bloody violence.
The two events outlined how an uprising against President Bashar Assad that started with mass popular protests is moving now toward an armed conflict that could draw international intervention an outcome the Arab League is trying to avoid.
Arab League foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo, extended the much-criticized observers mission for another month, officials from the 22-member organization said.
The League decided to add more observers and provide them with additional resources, the officials said. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to reporters, said the UN would train the observers.
The observer mission is supposed to be the first step toward implementing an Arab League plan to end the Syria crisis. Other points are pulling heavy Syrian weapons out of cities, stopping attacks on protesters, opening talks with the opposition and allowing foreign human rights workers and journalists in.
“There is partial progress in the implementation of the promises,” Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said in Cairo about Syria's implementation of the plan. Syria “did not carry out all its promises, although there are some implementation of pledges.”
He added that the use of “extreme force” by Syrian forces have led to a reaction by the opposition “in what could lead to civil war.”
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters that his country will pull out its observers because “the Syrian government did not implement the Arab plan.” Saudi Arabia has been one of the harshest Arab critics of the crackdown,
It recalled its ambassador from Damascus last year in protest. So far the observer mission has not gone well. Though some credit it with tamping down violence in some places, the Local Coordination Committees activist group said that 976 people, including 54 children and 28 women, have been killed since the observers began their mission last month. The UN estimates some 5,400 have been killed since it began in March.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Arab League to “maximize” the effectiveness of the mission of the observers in Syria “to stop the killings.” The Arab League faced three options today: ending the mission and giving up its initiative, extending it, or turning the crisis over to the UN Security Council, as some opposition groups have urged.
There, however, it would face a possible stalemate because of disagreements among permanent members over how far to go in forcing Assad's hand. The mission's one-month mandate technically expired on Thursday.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights' head Rami Abdul-Rahman said government troops had pulled back early today to a provincial headquarters and a security agency building in the Damascus suburb of Douma after hours of clashes, although they still controlled the entrances.
This afternoon, the battles resumed between the defectors and troops loyal to Assad, according to the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group. The LCC said that heavy machine gun fire was used in the clashes, and five people were killed.
The LCC said 12 people were killed in Syria today. The LCC and the Observatory reported intense gunfire in the central city of Homs that left at least one person dead.