Protesters against the Syrian regime perform a dance and wave revolutionary… (Nasser Nasser, Associated…)
Reporting from Cairo and Damascus, Syria — With no end to the bloodshed in Syria, the Arab League on Sunday called for President Bashar Assad to hand over power to his top deputy and sought the formation of a unity government to prepare for early elections.
The league's demands seem certain to anger the Syrian government, which blames months of unrest on "foreign conspiracies" and has repeatedly rejected what it regards as attacks on its sovereignty.
League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said the 22-member regional bloc would seek endorsement from the United Nations Security Council for its plan but did not say what it would do if Syria did not comply with its demands.
The political road map outlined by Arab foreign ministers at a meeting in Cairo is similar to a plan that saw Yemen's longtime ruler hand much of his authority to his vice president ahead of presidential elections in February, in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
The league wants a national dialogue to begin in Syria within two weeks and a transitional government to be formed within two months to oversee preparations for general elections. It also wants the new government to form independent panels to investigate abuses and draft a new constitution.
Assad has expressed a willingness to form a more inclusive government, make changes to the constitution and hold elections on his terms. At the same time, he has pledged to respond with an iron fist against opponents he labels terrorists, and he has refused to step down.
The league's proposals, approved by all members except Algeria and Lebanon, came out of a meeting to review the findings of a one-month observer mission in Syria. About 165 monitors were deployed to verify whether the government is fulfilling its pledge to end a violent crackdown against a 10-month uprising.
Arab foreign ministers agreed to continue the mission, which can be extended for another month with the consent of Assad's government. But they want to increase the number of observers and provide them additional support.
The decision came despite complaints from opposition and human rights activists that the mission has only bought the government more time to pursue its crackdown.
Security forces have killed as many as 976 people since the first observers arrived in December, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of opposition activists who organize protests and document the violence. In all, more than 5,000 people have been killed since the start of major antigovernment protests in March, according to United Nations estimates.
Saudi Arabia said it is pulling its observers out of Syria because it sees no evidence that Damascus is complying with the league's plan, which calls for the withdrawal of security forces from cities and residential areas, the release of political prisoners and dialogue with the government's opponents.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal urged the international community, including Syria's allies Russia and China, to use "all possible pressure" to persuade Assad's government to fulfill its commitments.
Activists reported fierce clashes Sunday between security forces and defectors fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army in the Damascus suburb of Duma. At least 12 people were killed there in the last two days, according to the Local Coordination Committees.
Elaraby conceded that the government was not fully complying with the league's plan, although he said some steps had been taken.
He said the government had released a number of detainees, although the observers had not been able to establish how many remain behind bars. And he said the government had admitted more international journalists but was still restricting their work.
He also said that the use of "excessive violence" by the Syrian security services was causing people to take up arms, which he warned in a report "carries with it the possibility of civil war."
The emir of Qatar, which orchestrated Syria's suspension from the league and the imposition of sweeping sanctions against the country, has called for the deployment of Arab forces to "stop the killing," a proposal reiterated Sunday by the country's foreign minister.
"The reality is that the bloodshed hasn't stopped," Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al Thani said in Cairo. "What is needed now is a total revision of the mission's work."
Syria has rejected Qatar's proposal and accused the country of financing "armed gangs," which it says killed more than 2,000 security force members. The proposal also faces resistance from a number of league members opposed to any form of military intervention in Syria.
Special correspondent Hassan reported from Cairo and Times staff writer Zavis from Damascus. Special correspondent Rima Marrouch in Damascus contributed to this report.