CAIRO -- The Arab League called Sunday for the U.N. Security Council to create a joint peacekeeping force for Syria, the latest effort by the regional group to end the 11-month old crisis that has killed more than 5,000 people.
The new effort was spelled out in a resolution adopted by League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo. However, Syria immediately rejected the idea.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal conveyed the League's deep frustration with Syria by telling delegates at the start of the meeting that it was no longer appropriate for the 22-member League to stand by and watch the bloodshed in Syria.
"Until when will we remain spectators?" he said. "It is a disgrace for us as Muslims and Arabs to accept" the bloodshed in Syria, he said.
Syria's state news agency said the regime rejected the Arab League decisions, which were taken without a Syrian representative present. Syrian Ambassador to the Arab League and to Egypt, Ahmed Youssef, was quoted as saying that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were "living in a state of hysteria after their last failure at the U.N. Security Council to call for outside interference in Syria's affairs and to impose sanctions on the Syrian people."
The Arab League has been at the forefront of regional efforts to end 11 months of bloodshed in Syria. The group put forward a plan that President Bashar Assad agreed to in December, then sent in monitors to check whether the Syrian regime was complying. But when it became clear that Assad's regime was flouting the terms of the agreement and killings went on, the League pulled the observers out last month.
"The time has come for a decisive action to stop the bloodshed suffered by the Syrian people since the start of last year," Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told the Arab foreign ministers. "We must move quickly in all directions ... to end or break the ongoing cycle of violence in Syria."
The League called for the U.N. Security Council to adopt its own resolution that provides for an immediate cease-fire in Syria, the protection of civilians and overseeing a humanitarian effort for victims of the violence. It demanded that regime forces lift the siege on neighborhoods and villages and pull troops and their heavy weapons back to their barracks.
It urged Syrian opposition groups to unite ahead of a Feb. 24 meeting in Tunisia of the "Friends of Syria" group," which includes the United States, its European allies and Arab nations working to end the uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule.
The creation of the group came after last weekend's veto at the U.N. by Russia and China of a Western and Arab draft resolution that would have pressured Assad to step down. That resolution also would have demanded that Assad halt the crackdown on dissent and implement the Arab League peace plan that calls for him to hand over power to his vice president and allow creation of a unity government to clear the way for elections.
Elaraby told the Cairo meeting that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote him a letter Saturday that conveyed what he called a partial change in Moscow's stand on the Syrian crisis. He quoted Lavrov as saying Russia would agree to a joint U.N.-Arab League peacekeeping force.
The League also said it wanted to provide the opposition groups with political and material support. It called for a halt to all diplomatic contacts with Syria and for referring officials responsible for crimes against the Syrian people to international criminal tribunals. It urged a tightening of trade sanctions previously adopted by the League but not been fully implemented.
The foreign ministers were also expected to consider a proposal by Gulf States to expel Syrian ambassadors from Arab capitals, but the resolution made no mention of that.
Meanwhile, Washington piled more pressure on Syria.
President Barack Obama's Chief of Staff Jacob Lew said it was only a matter of time before Assad's regime collapsed.
"The brutality of the Assad regime is unacceptable and has to end," he told "Fox News Sunday." The U.S. is pursuing "all avenues that we can" and that "there is no question that this regime will come to an end. The only question is when," he said.
Late Saturday, al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri threw the terror network's support behind Syrian rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad, raising fears that Islamic extremists are exploiting the uprising that began peacefully but is quickly transforming into an armed insurgency.
The regime has long blamed terrorists for the revolt, and al-Qaida's endorsement creates new difficulties for Western and Arab states trying to figure out a way to help force Assad out of power.
Foreign ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain — are also proposing the expulsion of Syrian ambassadors from all Arab League nations during the meeting in Cairo. The GCC ministers also proposed that Arab nations withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus, according to the officials.
The GCC proposals, reported by Arab League officials, were not mentioned in the resolution, but the clause calling for a halt to all diplomatic contacts in Syria appeared to reflect a compromise.
The six nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been campaigning for a tougher stand against Assad's regime and may offer formal recognition of the National Syrian Council, the largest of Syria's opposition groups, at Sunday's meeting.
Assad's regime has pursued a harsh crackdown against the uprising since it began last March. The U.N. estimates that 5,400 people have been killed since March, but that figure is from January, when the world body stopped counting because the chaos in Syria has made it all but impossible to check the figures. Hundreds are reported to have been killed since.
Elaraby said he had accepted the resignation of Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Al-Dabi, the head of the Syrian observer mission, and nominated former Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Illah al-Khatib as the new envoy. Al-Khatib's nomination was ratified by the Arab ministers.
"He (Al-Dabi) asked me yesterday to end his mandate because it no longed suited the present stage," Elaraby said without elaboration. The Sudanese general was harshly criticized for his management of the monitors mission, which was perceived by the Syrian opposition and many protesters to have provided a cover for the regime's continued crackdown.
Al-Dabi was also criticized for being a longtime aide of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, himself indicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Sudan's western Darfur region, where a revolt against the Khartoum government began in 2003 but has petered out about five years later.
"The new mission must be totally different from the previous one," Elaraby told the foreign ministers as he proposed a joint Arab League-U.N. mission to Syria. "The previous experience has shown that there can be no stop to violence and restoration of security without an agreed upon vision on the components of the sought-after political settlement."
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