CAIRO Arab states sought to regain momentum to end bloodshed in Syria with a call on Sunday for a joint U.N.-Arab peacekeeping force and renewed efforts to build international support by hosting a meeting of Arabs and Western powers later this month.
Syrian swiftly rejected the latest Arab League resolution that called for supporting the Syrian opposition which has been demanding an end to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, who has sent tanks and troops to quash 11 months of protests.
Arab ministers met in Cairo to revive their diplomatic efforts that hit the buffers when Russia and China vetoed a U.N. resolution that was based on a Western-backed Arab peace plan.
As part of those efforts, Tunisia said it would host the first meeting on February 24 of a "Friends of Syria" contact group made up of Arab and other states and backed by Western powers.
"How long will we stay as onlookers to what is happening to the brotherly Syrian people, and how much longer will we grant the Syrian regime one period after another so it can commit more massacres against its people?" Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal asked ministers at the start of the League session.
"At our meeting today I call for decisive measures, after the failure of the half-solutions," he said.
The League resolution said Arabs would scrap a monitoring mission which they sent to Syria in late December but which was criticized by Syria's opposition as ineffective from the outset. It also faced internal dissent and logistical problems.
The Sudanese general leading the observers quit on Sunday.
"I won't work one more time in the framework of the Arab League," General Mohammed al-Dabi, whose appointment had been criticized because of Sudan's own rights record, told Reuters.
"I performed my job with full integrity and transparency but I won't work here again as the situation is skewed," he added.
In place of the Arab team, the League called for the U.N. Security Council to issue a resolution setting up a joint U.N.-Arab peacekeeping mission to go to Syria.
League chief Nabil Elaraby floated the idea last week but it drew only a lukewarm support from diplomats at the United Nations. The United States and Germany said they were studying it.
An Arab diplomat last week compared such a mission to the U.N.-Africa Union military force UNAMID sent to Sudan's Darfur region. U.N. officials and Western delegations have criticized UNAMID as ineffective, partly because it is a joint operation.
The League called for "opening communication channels with the Syrian opposition and providing all forms of political and material support to it," and urged the opposition to unite. One League official said "material" was intended to mean financial.
Syria's ambassador to the League rejected the League resolution "completely," Syria's state news agency reported. He said Syria, which has been suspended from the League, would not accept any resolution decided in its absence.
Lebanon, a neighbor which was long dominated by Syria, and Algeria voiced reservations, Egypt's state news agency said.
The League resolution said violence against civilians in Syria had violated international law and "perpetrators deserve punishment." It also reaffirmed a call for Arabs to implement economic sanctions on Syria and decided on ending diplomatic cooperation with Damascus.
Analysts and diplomats say sanctions that Arabs agreed to impose last year had limited impact so far because Iraq and other neighbors have not implemented them.
Although the ministers lent their support to the opposition, the resolution did not recognize the opposition.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Ben Abdessalem told reporters that recognizing the Syrian National Council was "premature and requires the opposition get unified."
Ben Abdessalem also announced that Tunisia would host the meeting of "Friends of Syria," a plan proposed by France and the United States after Russia and China used their veto.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said the new forum would provide "a good opportunity to try to create a clear international direction to help the Syrian people to exit the crisis."
Gulf states, which have led action on Syria, said last week they were recalling their ambassadors from Syria and expelling Syria's envoys. Libya and Tunisia, both countries where popular revolts toppled autocratic rulers last year, have done the same.
Diplomats at the United Nations said Saudi Arabia had circulated a new draft resolution backing the Arab plan for the General Assembly, rather than the Security Council, to consider. Assembly resolutions are non-binding but cannot be vetoed.
However, Riyadh denied on Sunday reports that it had formally presented the resolution to the assembly.
The League resolution expressed the "disappointment towards the Russia and Chinese stance which used a veto against supporting the Arab peace plan."
Egypt's news agency said Elaraby had proposed appointing former Jordanian minister and U.N. envoy to Libya, Abdel Elah al-Khatib, as the League's special envoy to Syria. But a source in the meeting said Khatib's name was not put forward.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Tamim Elyan and Omar Fahmy; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Myra MacDonald)