01/22/2012 07:46 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2012

Arab League Syria Monitors May Extend Mission One Month

By Tom Pfeiffer and Ayman Samir

CAIRO, Jan 22 (Reuters) - An Arab League committee on Syria will ask Arab foreign ministers on Sunday to extend a peace mission in the country by one month, an Arab government source said.

Hundreds of Syrians have been killed since the monitoring mission began its work in late December and political opponents of President Bashar al-Assad are demanding the League refer Syria to the United Nations Security Council.

"The committee will recommend an expansion of the monitoring mission for an extra month," said the source, who was attending the committee's meeting in Cairo and asked not to be named.

The foreign ministers are due to meet later on Sunday to debate the findings of the month-long monitoring mission, whose mandate expired on Thursday, and must decide whether to extend, withdraw or strengthen it.

Arab states are divided over how to handle the crisis in Syria and critics say the monitoring mission is handing Assad more time to kill opponents of his rule.

Some want to crank up pressure on Assad to end a 10-month-old crackdown on a popular revolt in which, according to the United Nations, more than 5,000 people have died.

Others worry that weakening Assad could tip Syria, with its potent mix of religious and ethnic allegiances, into a deeper conflict that would destabilise the entire region, and some may fear the threat from their own populations if he were toppled.

The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) says the observers lack the resources and clout to truly judge Assad's compliance with an Arab peace plan that Syria signed up to in November and has called upon the Arab League to refer the Syrian crisis to the United Nations Security Council.

But Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia told the head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, that they would oppose such a move, a League source said on Sunday.

"The three states support solving the Syrian crisis inside the Arab League," the source told Reuters.

The head of the monitoring effort, Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, was presenting his findings to the League's Syria committee and the foreign ministers of the 22-member regional body will decide their response later on Sunday.

Syrian opposition activists said Assad's forces killed 35 civilians on Saturday and 30 unidentified corpses were found at a hospital in Idlib. The state news agency SANA said bombs killed at least 14 prisoners and two security personnel in a security vehicle in Idlib province.


Maintaining the 165 monitors, and perhaps giving them a broader remit, could give Arab states more time to find a way out of the crisis.

The Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera, citing an unnamed source, said Dabi planned to tell ministers that the Syrian government had not done enough to respect the peace protocol and to request that the mission be extended.

Elaraby met several Arab officials on Saturday and another source close to the League said the ministers could decide both to extend the mission and to offer it additional support in the form of U.N. or military experts.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia, regional rivals of Syria and its ally Iran, are impatient for decisive action against Assad and Qatar has suggested sending Arab troops to Syria.

The League is due to discuss the idea but military action against Assad would need unanimous backing and several countries still believe in a negotiated solution, League sources say.

The Security Council is also split on how to address the crisis, with Western powers demanding tougher sanctions and a weapons embargo and Assad's ally Russia preferring to leave the Arabs to negotiate a peaceful outcome.

Suggestions to send in U.N. experts to support the Arab observers made little headway at the last meeting earlier this month and Damascus has said it would accept an extension of the observer mission but not an expansion in its scope.

Syria, keen to avoid tougher foreign action, has tried to show it is complying with the Arab peace plan, which demanded a halt to killings, a military pullout from the streets, the release of detainees, access for the monitors and the media, and a political dialogue with opposition groups.

This month the Syrian authorities have freed hundreds of detainees, announced an amnesty, struck a ceasefire deal with armed rebels in one town, allowed the Arab observers into some troublespots and admitted some foreign journalists.

Assad also promised political reforms, while vowing iron-fisted treatment of the "terrorists" trying to topple him. (Reporting by Ayman Samir, Yasmine Saleh and Lin Noueihed; editing by Diana Abdallah)