Three years since the start of the uprising, nine million people have been displaced by fighting.
Syrian activists are calling for the removal of the head of the Arab League monitoring team, a new blow to the credibility of a mission that the opposition has condemned as a farce for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to buy time and avoid more international censure and sanctions.
The 60 Arab League monitors, who toured restive areas again on Thursday, began work two days ago. They are the first Syria has allowed in during the nine-month anti-government uprising. They are supposed to be ensuring that the government is complying with the terms of the League’s plan to end the crackdown on protests.
Syrian activists, however, doubt Arab monitors are getting the access they need to be able to give a fair assessment of the crackdown that the United Nations has estimated to have killed more than 5,000 people.
They say the Arab team is only coordinating its work with the authorities and complain that security escorts, from the very forces that have sought to crush the protests, mean many activists dare not approach the monitors.
A member of the observer team told Al Jazeera the situation in Syria is “very dangerous”.
The official, who declined to be named, said there was constant shelling in the city of Homs with some areas under control of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group of armed anti-government fighters.
The source said he believes the Arab League mission is certainly going to fail.
The Syrian Local Co-ordination Committees, an umbrella group of anti-government activist organisations, put the death toll in Thursday’s violence at 38, many of them in cities that an Arab League delegation will tour.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of those were killed when Assad’s forces opened fire on countrywide
protests. Six reportedly died in the central city of Hama, where monitors recently arrived.
The group said security forces fired on a protest in Douma, a Damascus suburb, and killed four people. Enraged residents launched a civil disobedience campaign and thousands reportedly flooded the main square for a sit-in.
“The activists have called for complete civil disobedience. The roads have been blocked, stores are shut down and the city is paralysed,” said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the UK-based Observatory.
Monitors did not announce plans to inspect Douma on Thursday but some residents said they saw cars with Arab League logos. If true, it would be the team’s first surprise visit, but no residents have reported seeing or speaking to monitors.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Hadi Abdullah, an activist in Homs, said that monitors witnessed the crackdown on protests, but he is suspicious they would report it.
“The observers saw a lot of violence in the city. They saw how security forces shoot at protests. They also saw the bodies of dead people,” Abdullah said.
“The monitors also saw destruction in the city. One of the observers asked residents of Baba Amr neighbourhood ‘How can you live in this place?'”
Another activist, Aram al-Dumi, from Douma, told Al Jazeera that there is a lack of coordination between activists and the observers.
“The delegation is relying solely on street signs when visiting the cities, they should rely on satellite images in order to locate the areas,” al Dumi said.
“There has been reports of security forces changing the street signs, this has been the case in Douma, today we went to the grand mosque square after a funeral procession to demonstrate and greet the observers but the army fired at us.”
Opposition activists have also denounced the head of the mission, General Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, for serving as a senior official in the “oppressive regime” of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president under an international arrest warrant on charges of committing genocide in Darfur.
Bashir came to power in a 1989 military coup and Amnesty International said al-Dabi led his military intelligence service until August 1995, when he was appointed head of external security.
“During the early 1990s, the military intelligence in Sudan was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and torture or other ill-treatment of numerous people in Sudan,” the Amnesty statement said.
“The Arab League’s decision to appoint as the head of the observer mission a Sudanese general on whose watch severe human rights violations were committed in Sudan risks undermining the League’s efforts so far and seriously calls into question the mission’s credibility,” Amnesty said.
Haytham Manna, a prominent Paris-based dissident, urged the Arab League to replace al-Dabi or reduce his authority.
“We know his history and his shallow experience in the area,” he said.
An Arab League official in Cairo defended the choice of al-Dabi, saying he enjoyed the support of all members. The monitors’ mandate, he explained, was to observe and report to the League and not to intervene.
“We follow our conscience. The mission and its final report will decide the future of Syria and this is not a small matter,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
International diplomats have urged Syria’s government to facilitate the observer mission.
|Observers plan to visit protests hubs in the country|
Hong Lei, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said: “China welcomes the Arab League observers’ objective investigations in Syria.”
China “hopes parties concerned can make joint efforts to earnestly implement the mission protocol to create conditions for the proper settlement of Syria’s crisis,” he said on Thursday.
On Wednesday, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, urged Syria to give the Arab League observers maximum freedom as they go about their mission.
“We constantly work with the Syrian leadership calling on it to fully co-operate with observers from the Arab League and to create work conditions that are as comfortable and free as possible,” Lavrov said.
The US also demanded that Syrian authorities allow the mission full access and urged monitors to report what they find to the international community.
The Arab League plan endorsed by Syria on November 2 calls for the withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts, a halt to violence against civilians and the release of detainees.
The Syrian government says most of the violence has been perpetrated by “armed terrorist groups” that are working against the government.