BEIRUT — Syria agreed in principle Friday to allow dozens of Arab observers into the country to oversee a peace plan, a significant concession from a hardline regime that loathes any sort of outside interference.
But critics said the regime is only stalling, trying to defuse international pressure while continuing its bloody crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising which the U.N. estimates has killed more than 3,500 people.
The acceptance came after surprisingly heavy pressure from the Arab League, which brokered the peace plan and this week suspended Syria from the 22-member organization for failing to abide by it. On Wednesday, the league gave Damascus three days to accept an observer mission or face economic sanctions.
Further international pressure was mounting on Syrian President Bashar Assad. Britain appointed a senior diplomat to be its pointman in dealing with Syria's opposition over the crisis, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called on the U.N. Security Council to strengthen sanctions against Assad's regime. However, Russia, which holds veto power in the council, urged caution in moving against Damascus.
Violence has escalated in Syria the past week, as army dissidents who sided with the protests have grown more bold, fighting back against regime forces and even assaulting military bases. Activist groups said security forces on Friday killed at least 16 anti-government protesters in what has become a weekly ritual on Fridays, the main day for protests in Syria as thousands of people stream out of mosques following afternoon prayers.
The Arab League observer mission aims to prevent violence and monitor a cease-fire that Damascus agreed to last week in the league peace plan but has been unwilling – or unable – to implement.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. has seen no signs that Syria's government will honor the Arab League proposal.
"They've lost all credibility and that's why we believe Assad needs to step down and allow for a democratic transition to take place," he told reporters.
Deep questions remain over how effective Damascus will allow the mission to be.
A senior Syrian official said Friday that the government had agreed to the observer mission in principle but was "still studying the details." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is so sensitive.
Nabil Elaraby, the head of the Arab League, said in a statement Friday that he received "amendments" to the mission from Damascus, which the League is studying. He gave no details on the changes Syria seeks.
The original league proposal had been for a 500-member observer mission but the number has dropped to 40, said Ibrahim el-Zaafarani, an Egyptian member of the Arab Medical Union who is expected to be part of the team for Syria. He said he was not clear on why or on whose behest the number was reduced.
"Our presence there will be protection for civilians," el-Zaafarani, in Cairo, told The Associated Press. He said the mission will include doctors, activists, lawyers and military experts.
The Syrian opposition was deeply skeptical.
"We have warned in the past and we warn again that these are the methods of the regime to waste time," said Omar Idilbi, a Beirut-based member of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of regime opponents.
But Louay Hussein, a prominent dissident based in Damascus, said allowing observers in was "a small step that can be built on and developed."
"The presence of observers constitutes a protection, however small, for civilians," he said. Their presence, he said, can help "expose the regime's lies."
The regime has depicted the uprising as the work of "armed gangs." On Friday, the state news agency said "terrorists" blew up an oil pipeline in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, causing a fire and four-hour disruption in oil pumping.
Syria's acceptance of any mission shows how sharply the Arab League suspension stung a regime that prides itself on being a bastion of Arab nationalism. The acceptance – and if the changes requested by Syria are approved – likely averts for the moment harsher moves by the league.
The regime "is trying to offset external pressure," said Anthony Skinner, associate director at Maplecroft, a British-based risk analysis company.
But there is "little reason to believe the authorities would allow an observer mission to acquire accurate information on the atrocities committed by security forces and the dynamics on the ground," he said.
The crisis in Syria has burned for nearly eight months despite widespread condemnation and international sanctions aimed at chipping away at the ailing economy and isolating Assad and his tight circle of relatives and advisers. The protesters have grown increasingly frustrated with the limits of their peaceful movement, and there are signs of a growing armed rebellion in some areas.
Attacks by army defectors, including one this week on an Air Force Intelligence base just outside Damascus, have raised fears of civil war. Moreover, Syria's volatile sectarian divide appears to be flaring. The religiously mixed central city of Homs, in particular, has seen almost daily reports of sectarian killings, assassinations and kidnappings.
Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, but the Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and has support among the Christian minority, where many worry about Sunni domination.
The armed attacks by opposition groups have prompted international warnings, with the U.S. State Department spokesman on Thursday calling it "a very dangerous path."
Meeting with Turkey's foreign minister in Ankara, France's Juppe called on the Syrian opposition "to avoid recourse to an armed insurrection."
Despite the pressure, Assad still has allies at home and abroad.
In October, Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution threatening sanctions. On Friday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin urged "restraint and caution" in drafting any new resolution against Syria.
Syria's closest ally, Iran, voiced its support.
Prominent Iranian legislator Alaeddin Moroujerdi called the league suspension of Syria a "historic mistake" that will cause more chaos in Syria and could even lead to civil war that could spread to the region.
Internally, Assad can still count on the support of Syria's business elite and minorities concerned about their fate in a post-Assad era. He has also been able to rely on a staunchly loyal top brass which is effectively part of the regime.
"Bashar has learnt from his father how to divide and rule and also keep potential turncoats in check," Skinner said.
"But he is now dealing with an increasingly difficult situation on the ground."
Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.