- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — A clash between Syrian forces and army defectors erupted Sunday in a suburb of the tightly held capital of Damascus, adding urgency just as the Arab League was extending an observers’ mission that so far has failed to end long months of bloody violence.

The two events outlined how an uprising against President Bashar Assad that started with mass popular protests is moving now toward an armed conflict that could draw international intervention — an outcome the Arab League is trying to avoid.

Arab League foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo, extended the much-criticized observers mission for another month, officials from the 22-member organization said.

The league decided to add more observers and provide them with additional resources, the officials said.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to reporters, said the United Nations would train the observers.

The observer mission is supposed to be the first step toward implementing an Arab League plan to end the Syria crisis. Other points are pulling heavy Syrian weapons out of cities, stopping attacks on protesters, opening talks with the opposition, and allowing foreign human rights workers and journalists in.

“There is partial progress in the implementation of the promises,” Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said in Cairo about Syria’s implementation of the plan. Syria “did not carry out all its promises, although there are some implementation of pledges.”

He added that the use of “extreme force” by Syrian forces has led to a reaction by the opposition “in what could lead to civil war.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters that his country will pull out its observers because “the Syrian government did not implement the Arab plan.” He urged other Muslim countries, China, Russia, Europe and the United States to put pressure on Mr. Assad’s government to stop the violence.

Saudi Arabia has been one of the harshest Arab critics of the crackdown. It recalled its ambassador from Damascus last year in protest.

So far the observer mission has not gone well. Though some credit it with tamping down violence in some places, the Local Coordination Committees activist group said Sunday that 976 people, including 54 children and 28 women, have been killed since the observers began their mission last month.

The United Nations estimates some 5,400 have been killed since it began in March.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on the Arab League to “maximize” the effectiveness of the mission of the observers in Syria “to stop the killings.”

“The deployment of the observers, has been disappointing … Assad played games with observers,” by moving around forces instead of removing them from cities, while the killing continues, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The Arab League faced three options Sunday: ending the mission and giving up its initiative, extending it or turning the crisis over to the U.N. Security Council, as some opposition groups have urged. There, however, it would face a possible stalemate because of disagreements among permanent members over how far to go in forcing Mr. Assad’s hand.

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