President Bashar Assad's supporters, some carrying a giant Syrian… (Muzaffar Salman / AP Photos )
Reporting from Beirut — An Arab initiative to end violence in Syria appeared at an impasse Sunday, as Damascus and Arab foreign ministers failed to agree on a formula that would allow monitors into the country.
The Arab League rejected what it called a Syrian effort to "change radically" the league's peace blueprint, which calls for the government of President Bashar Assad to remove troops from cities and towns and conduct talks with the opposition.
Syrian officials repeated concerns that the league was being used as a "tool" and "pretext" for Western intervention.
Arab foreign ministers have already suspended Syria from the 22-member bloc because of what the league calls the government's failure to implement the peace plan, which Damascus agreed to on Nov. 2. But Arab ministers have been extending deadlines and granting reprieves to Syria in an apparent bid to keep the peace plan alive.
"The league is committed to solving the Syrian crisis within an Arab framework," the group said Sunday in a statement.
Syrian officials say they too want to settle the matter within the league context, even though they have criticized the country's suspension as an illegal bow to "U.S.-Western agendas."
Arab officials initially spoke of a team of 500 monitors, but more recently the number dropped to 30.
A core dispute appears to be the amount of freedom given to the planned Arab monitor mission, which is a key part of the peace road map. The league wants its monitors to have freedom to travel and meet with the opposition, visit conflict zones, hospitals and other relevant sites. This prospect appears to worry Damascus.
Syria says the monitors will have "freedom of movement," reported the official news agency, SANA, and will be allowed to meet with the opposition. But Damascus wants "to be informed of the places the mission will go," the news agency said, quoting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.
The dispute about monitors reflects the difficulty of knowing exactly what is happening on the ground in Syria, where, according to the United Nations, at least 3,500 civilians have been killed since protests began in mid-March. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others have said the strategically situated nation of 22 million people could be sliding toward civil war.
The central city of Homs, epicenter of the uprising, has been widely depicted as a kind of urban war zone where sectarian killers roam the streets, the army shells opposition neighborhoods and troops fire on peaceful protesters. The government denies targeting civilians and blames the violence on "armed terrorists," including Muslim extremists.
On Sunday, Syria denied widely circulated opposition reports that rebels had launched a grenade attack on the Damascus headquarters of the ruling Baath Party. The opposition is seeking to oust Assad and end the more-than four-decade Baathist rule.
Syria has severely restricted access for journalists and human rights investigators, making it hard to know what exactly is going on. Both sides have issued inaccurate accounts.
Arab diplomats consider an independent observer mission crucial to understanding the complex reality on the ground.
Syria views with alarm reports that the league could call for "internationalization" of the conflict, perhaps seeking U.N. approval for the creation of "safe zones" within the country or even a no-fly zone — as the league requested in the case of Libya, opening the way for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing campaign in that nation. Western officials have denied any intention to intervene in Syria.
Assad, meanwhile, seemed to dismiss the Arab League plan as a "pretext" for Western nations "to conduct a military intervention against Syria," as he told the Sunday Times of London. Assad vowed to press an offensive against "armed terrorist acts," and insisted he would not "bow down" to pressure.
"The only way is to search for the armed people, chase the armed gangs, prevent the entry of arms and weapons from neighboring countries, prevent sabotage and enforce law and order," Assad said.