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Syrian and international activists are raining criticism on the controversial Arab League mission that was dispatched to Syria last week to monitor government compliance with orders to end its crackdown on the country's opposition movement. Last week the outcry focused on the dubious human rights record of the general heading the mission. This week there are concerns that the observers are being misled by the government.
The key question: Is the mission merely a facade to make it seem like the international community is taking action in Syria, or does it just need time because of the difficult circumstances?
Britain-based activist Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activist Mustafa Osso in Syria told the Associated Press that government officials are "changing neighborhood signs to confuse the monitors, taking them to areas loyal to the regime and painting army vehicles to look like those of the police — in order to claim the army has pulled out of flashpoint regions."
Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi admitted that violence continues, but wouldn't denounce the mission, citing the release of political prisoners and the withdrawal of tanks from cities, The Los Angeles Times reports.
"Yes, there is still shooting, and yes, there are still snipers," Mr. Arabi said from the league's Cairo headquarters. But the mission found it "hard to say who is shooting whom," he added.
The Local Coordination Committees, one of the leading anti-Assad groups, said in a statement to Arabi that the observers lacked professionalism. The group estimated that almost 400 people had been killed since the observers began arriving in Syria last month, Agence France-Presse reports.
Opposition groups say that the mission – consisting of about 70 monitors on the ground, with 30 more coming soon – is too small and easily "misled" to provide an accurate account to the Arab League, according to the LA Times.
"Either the Arab observers are blind or they are working for the regime," said an activist in Homs, where observers went first. The man, who said his name was Abu Rami, said there were "checkpoints 'full of soldiers' in the city and tanks hidden on its outskirts that could be back inside within minutes. … 'This is not a withdrawal'."
According to Reuters, activists report having difficulty meeting with monitors out of earshot of the monitors' government security escorts. Activist Mohammed Abul-Khair told the news agency that he managed to get information on detainees and suspected detention centers to the monitors who said "they had found it hard to meet activists until now, but appeared sympathetic."
Others said the team seemed unprepared or unwilling. They said the monitors had set up an office in a government-controlled area hard for activists to reach, and complained that many observers did not bring cameras or notepads on visits.
"I don't think they are sympathetic, I think they are afraid," said activist Abu Faisal, also present at the meeting. "We wanted to take them to one of the narrow alleys where there had been a lot of shelling. They wouldn't go past the buildings where there were snipers.
Both France and the US voiced concerns about the mission as well. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said monitors needed to be able to act independently, without Syrian security forces present. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US is worried about reports of soldiers masquerading as police officers and putting out notices about the arrival of observers in order to lure members of the opposition into the streets.
The head of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed faction of the opposition, threatened yesterday to ratchet up attacks on government forces if the monitors did not begin showing progress, Reuters reports. "If we feel they (the monitors) are still not serious in a few days, or at most within a week, we will take a decision which will surprise the regime and the whole world," said Col. Riad al-Asaad.
Asaad, whose FSA is an umbrella group of armed factions, said he was waiting for the League's report on its first week before deciding whether to make a "transformative shift" that he said would mark a major escalation against the security forces.
"Since they (the monitors) entered, we had many more martyrs," he said, speaking by telephone from his safe haven in southern Turkey. "Is it in the Syrian people's interest to allow the massacre to continue?"
The head of the Arab Parliament, an advisory board to the Arab League, called for the monitors to be pulled out of Syria, CNN reports via Egypt's state-run MENA news agency. "What is happening allows the Syrian regime a cover for the exercise of its inhumane practices under the Arab League's watch," Ali Salem al-Deqbasi said in a statement.
But some others in the international community say that the mission should be looked at in the context of its alternatives – specifically the absence of any so far.
"I can understand very well that people are impatient. They want to see immediate results, that immediately the violence stops. So I think although the mission has not produced what the opposition, the peaceful opposition would have liked, it's too early to draw the conclusion that it's a failure," said Nikolaos Van Dam, a Syria analyst and former Dutch diplomat in the Middle East, according to a separate Reuters report.
"I would suggest to wait and see. If the mission comes to the conclusion that it is as bad, or even half as bad, as the opposition has been describing, this is already quite something. It could be reported to the UN Security Council," Mr. Van Dam said.