CAIRO (Reuters) - An Arab observer delegation in Syria is running into further difficulties, with two members either quitting or threatening to do so within 24 hours because their mission is proving ineffectual in ending the suffering of civilians.
An observer who declined to give his name said on Wednesday he was ready to walk out, exposing rifts in an Arab peace effort a day after Anwar Malek, an Algerian observer, told Al Jazeera TV he had quit Syria because the peace mission was a “farce.”
Both men, clearly appalled by what they had seen, spoke of continued violence, killings and torture, saying the bloodshed had not abated as a result of the presence of the Arab League mission. Both described Syrians’ suffering as “unimaginable.”
Malek’s departure was a blow to the mission, already criticized by Syria’s opposition as a toothless body that only served to buy President Bashar al-Assad time.
Its work has already been hampered by an attack on monitors in the western port of Latakia this week that lightly wounded 11 and prompted the League to delay sending new observers to Syria to join about 165 already there.
Another resignation would further undermine its credibility.
Asked if he agreed with Malek’s characterization of the mission as a failure, the monitor said: “It is true, it is true. Even I am trying to leave on Friday. I’m going to Cairo or elsewhere... because the mission is unclear.... It does not serve the citizens. It does not serve anything.”
“The Syrian authorities have exploited the weakness in the performance of the delegation to not respond. There is no real response on the ground.”
The monitor, speaking by telephone from Syria, asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“The military gear is still present even in the mosques. We asked that military equipment be withdrawn from the Abu Bakr al-Siddiq mosque in Deraa and until today they have not withdrawn.”
The Arab League monitoring mission began work on December 26. Its task is to verify if Syria is complying with an agreement to halt a crackdown on 10 months of protests against Assad in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed.
A U.N. official told the Security Council on Tuesday that Syria had accelerated its killing of protesters after the Arab monitors had arrived.
Assad mocked the Arab League in a speech in which he said that it had failed for six decades to promised to take a position in Arab interests. He said he would strike down a revolt he slammed as foreign plot.
The choice of a Sudanese general to head the mission had already alarmed opposition activists who say Sudan’s own defiance of a war crimes tribunal means the monitors probably will not recommend strong action against Assad.
The unnamed monitor said the Syrian authorities had shown little genuine willingness to comply with the plan while the observers lacked the expertise to do their mission justice.
“There is oppression. There is strong oppression and there is suffering, a lot of suffering, more than you imagine,” he said, describing one part of the central city of Homs he had visited.
“This is a very big problem and it is related firstly to the general will of the Syrian authorities to cooperate with the delegation in a genuine manner and without maneuvering,” he said.
“Secondly, it is related to the expertise of the delegation... It needs experts in the fields of monitoring, of diplomacy, of international law.”
While an Arab League meeting on Syria said on Sunday it remained committed to the mission, the observer said that individual monitors were thinking of quitting, either fearing for their lives or frustrated at failing to make a difference.
Malek said Syrian authorities had not withdrawn their tanks from the streets, but had simply hidden them.
“The snipers are everywhere shooting at civilians. People are being kidnapped. Prisoners are being tortured and no one has been released,” the Algerian former observer said on Al Jazeera. “Those who are supposedly freed and shown on TV are actually people who had been randomly grabbed off the streets.”
Earlier, a posting by Malek on Facebook was taken down, but his words were quoted on the page of Adib Shishakly, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council.
“Bloodshed in Syria hasn’t stopped,” Malek reportedly said. “Every day, we see bodies in conditions that are unimaginable. Violence is increasing and we are unable to do anything for the victims of snipers, bombardments and assassinations.
“Kidnapping continues, and torture has exceeded all boundaries. Syria is headed towards destruction and civil war.”
He said the monitors were “ruled by restrictions imposed by their governments,” but did not go into details.
“I am now clearing my conscience to the heroic people of Syria... The truth is gone and the right path is gone. And the sun of the Arabs has set in the alleyways of sad Syria.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the League monitoring mission in Syria could not continue indefinitely.
Adnan Khodeir, head of the League’s monitoring operations room, said the observers could resume work on Thursday after not going out for two days following the Latakia attack. “All the monitors are well, and there are no problems,” he said.
Under the Arab peace plan, Syrian authorities were supposed to stop attacking peaceful protests, withdraw troops and tanks from the streets, free detainees and open a political dialogue.
The unnamed monitor said those promises had not been met, with the Syrian military still present in cities, even in residential areas, while it was difficult to verify, for instance, if political prisoners had genuinely been released.
“There are lots of detainees who are not detained officially. Are they with air force security? Are they with military security? Are they with political security?” he said.
Malek accused Syria of war crimes and torturing prisoners. The Arab League, which suspended Syria in November for failing to halt the crackdown, disputed Malek’s account, saying illness had stopped him carrying out his work.
The unnamed monitor said Malek may have had contacts with Syrian opposition members, but they had visited Homs together.
Monitors had been allowed to visit any area they chose, but Syrian authorities had refused to accompany them in particularly tense neighborhoods, forcing them to make a decision to either stay away or take the risk of going in alone, the monitor said.
He arrived in Syria on December 27 and has visited Homs, Damascus and Deraa. The Bab Amr area of Homs was in a particularly dire way, he said.
Syria has barred most independent media, making it difficult to verify conflicting accounts of events on the ground.
The country says it is facing a wave of terrorism by Islamists and conspirators who are armed and manipulated from abroad and have killed 2,000 members of the security forces.
But the monitor said he had seen no evidence of this.
“We did not feel afraid or threatened while talking to them. In all the areas we went to, we did not meet any gunmen, unless they had hidden their guns,” he said. “What we found were citizens in their homes who spoke of their suffering.”
Additional reporting by Ayman Samir in Cairo and Alistair Lyon and Dominic Evans in Beirut. Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Richard Meares and Giles Elgood