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Arab League seeks joint U.N peacekeeping force for Syria

CAIRO — The Arab League voted Sunday to seek a joint U.N. peacekeeping 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 peacekeepers 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 revamped 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 along 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 weaponry 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 some 5,000 people since the uprising began. The Syrian government says 2,000 of its forces had been 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 footage, which is posted online by activists and impossible to independently verify.

"I call for decisive measures, after the failure of the half-solutions," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal told the meeting, according to the Saudi-backed Arabiya channel.

"The Arab League should ... open all channels of communication with the Syrian opposition and give all forms of support to it," he added.

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 told McClatchy 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 both 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."

Diplomacy, sanctions and other international pressure so far have failed to resolve the crisis, forcing Western leaders to consider seriously some form of intervention, such as the NATO campaign that was vital to toppling Libya's late Moammar Gadhafi.

There's little appetite for such a move, however, with the U.S. in an election year and other players nervous about the risk of worsening regional instability with a direct attack on Assad's regime. U.S. archenemy Iran is Assad's main supporter and Syria shares borders with other volatile states such as Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

More in-depth talks are scheduled at a Feb. 24 meeting in Tunisia of the so-called "Friends of Syria" group, which includes the United States and allied Arab and European nations. The Arab League on Sunday called on Syrian opposition leaders, mainly exiles whose support within the country is unknown, to work out their differences so as to present a more cohesive front at the talks in Tunisia.

"Not gaining (Arab League) recognition makes the Syrian opposition look bad before the Syrian people, but the problem is that events in Syria have gone so far that the Syria opposition is clueless and does look bad," said Jarah, the exiled activist.

Al Desoukie is a special correspondent. Hannah Allam contributed from Cairo.


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