- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria‘s foreign minister said Tuesday that “half the universe” is conspiring against his country, as Gulf Arab nations withdrew from a monitoring mission in Syria because the government has failed to stop 10 months of violence.

International pressure is building on Syria, not only from the West but increasingly from Arab nations as well. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,400 people have been killed since Syria‘s uprising began in March, sparked by the arrest of a group of teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in the country’s south.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on Tuesday signaled the crackdown will continue, saying in Damascus that the government will take any steps necessary to defend against chaos. Activists, meanwhile, reported more violence nationwide Tuesday, with more than 15 people killed and possibly many more.

Syria has claimed that armed gangs acting out a foreign conspiracy are behind the revolt, not protesters seeking change in one of the most authoritarian states in the Middle East.

“It is the duty of the Syrian government to take what it sees as necessary measures to deal with those armed groups that spread chaos,” Mr. al-Moallem said during a televised news conference.

He also said it was clear that some Arab countries have joined the conspiracy against Syria — a clear reference to the Gulf countries’ decision to withdraw their monitors and to Sunday’s call by the Arab League for Syria to create a national unity government in two months.

The plan also provides for President Bashar Assad to give his vice president full powers to cooperate with the proposed government to enable it to carry out its duties during a transitional period.

Damascus has rejected the plan as a violation of national sovereignty.

Tuesday’s decision by the six oil-rich Gulf nations — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — to pull out their monitors is a blow to an Arab League observer mission that has been mired by controversy, but that, for many, represented the only hope for an Arab solution to the crisis in Syria, away from outside intervention.

Now, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which contributed 52 of the estimated 160 observers, has called on the U.N. Security Council to take all “necessary measures” to force Syria to implement the Arab League’s peace plan.

The GCC long has advocated referring Syria to the Security Council, putting it in conflict with other Arab states. Security Council action could open the door for more economic sanctions and possible military intervention, although veto-wielding member Russia firmly opposes punitive measures against its longtime ally.

“The decision was made after careful and thorough monitoring of events in Syria and the conviction by the GCC that the bloodshed and the killing of innocent people there is continuing,” the GCC statement said.

Mr. al-Moallem brushed off the threat of Security Council action.

“If they go to (U.N. headquarters in) New York or the moon, as long as we don’t pay their tickets, this is their business,” he said.

He acknowledged there is little hope for an Arab solution but tried to portray confidence, saying Syria had the strong support of powerful allies in Iran as well as Russia.

The permanent representatives of the Arab League’s 22 members held an emergency meeting in Cairo on Tuesday to review the situation following the GCC’s decision.

Qatar’s envoy, Saleh Abdullah al-Buainain, told reporters after the meeting that the GCC countries would continue to support and fund the mission despite withdrawing their observers

An official at the Cairo-based Arab League said an emergency meeting of permanent representatives of the group’s 22 members will be held later Tuesday in the Egyptian capital to “review the situation” following the GCC’s decision.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Arab League’s observer mission has been criticized heavily for its failure to stop the Assad regime’s crackdown.

Saudi Arabia on Monday announced that it would pull out its observers, followed by the other GCC members.

“This is their business,” Mr. al-Moallem said. “Maybe the Saudi brothers in the mission don’t want to see the realities on the ground, which don’t satisfy their plots.”

Activists said the deadliest incident on Tuesday occurred when security forces shelled a building in the Bab Tadmur area of the restive central city of Homs, with local activist Mohammed Saleh saying 17 people were killed in the attack. The umbrella group Local Coordination Committees claimed 30 people were killed.

Syrian troops also opened fire to disperse hundreds of mourners who had gathered for the funeral of a prominent opposition figure who was killed by gunmen the day before in the village of al-Barra in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region, activists said.

The overall death toll ranged from 15 to more than 43, based on reports from the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Local Coordination Committees and several other activists on the ground.

Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut and Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.