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Arab League observers are touring Syria's most tense cities to ensure the government is withdrawing the Army and bringing an end to widespread bloodshed. But activists are expressing great skepticism about the mission's ability and willingness to accurately gauge the situation on the ground.
Because the observers represent the first international intervention in the country and the foreign press remains largely barred, the mission is a rare window into circumstances on the ground, where the United Nations estimates more than 5,000 have died. If the mission returns with a falsely favorable report, it could raise further obstacles to bringing the violence to an end.
At the end of a visit Tuesday to Homs, the country's third largest city and one of the focal points of the uprising, the head of the mission called the situation "reassuring so far," BBC reports. He did, however, acknowledge that there were some places where the situation was "not good."
Activists estimate that a third of the 5,000 deaths in the uprising have occurred in Homs, dozens of them in the past week, according to Reuters.
Video reports, which cannot be independently verified, have shown parts of Homs looking like a war zone. Constant machinegun and sniper fire is audible.... The military withdrew some tanks shortly before the monitors arrived, in what the activists called a ploy to persuade the monitors that the city was calm. Video on the Internet showed monitors confronted by residents imploring them to venture further into Baba Amr as gunfire crackled around them.
About 70,000 protesters marched through the streets of Homs Tuesday in a district of the city that monitors have not yet reached. Elsewhere in the city, residents begged monitors to visit the hard hit neighborhood of Baba Amr. About 20 observers will remain in Homs to investigate further.
Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said that, according to a Syrian security officer, the government is moving hundreds of detainees to military sites to keep them out of the observers' sight. One of the government's conditions for the mission was that observers not be allowed to visit "sensitive" military sites, CNN reports. The security officer also told HRW that the government has issued troops police identification cards and paperwork transferring them from the defense ministry to the interior ministry so that it appears as if the Army has been withdrawn from cities.
Developments like those have raised alarm that the Syrian government may create a convincing facade of calm while the observers are in the country, only to resume its crackdown when the mission departs.
Reuters reports that choosing a Sudanese man, Lt. Gen. Mustapha al Dabi, as head of the mission has also raised ire and concern, given Sudan's poor track record on human rights and President Omar al-Bashir's outstanding charges from the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Reuters writes that critics say it's "all but impossible to imagine a Sudanese general ever recommending strong outside intervention, much less an international tribunal, to respond to human rights abuses in a fellow Arab state." Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College who has studied Sudan and been strongly critical of its government, said choosing the general might be an effort to manipulate the end result of the mission.
"There is a broader question of why you would pick someone to lead this investigation ... when he is part of an army that is guilty of precisely the sort of crimes that are being investigated in Syria," Reeves said.
"I think a Sudanese general would be one of the least likely people in the world to acknowledge these findings even if they are right there before him.... It doesn't make any sense unless you want to shape the finding. They want it shaped in ways that will minimize the obligation to do more than they already have."
Reuters reports that General Dabi became head of military intelligence in 1989, as President Bashir took power in a coup, and later became deputy chief of staff for military operations. He also "held at least four positions related to Darfur." According to Amnesty International, in the 1990s Sudan's military intelligence was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, forced disappearances, and torture or other ill-treatment of numerous people in Sudan.
David Kenner at Foreign Policy writes in a piece headlined "The World's Worst Human Rights Observer" that Dabi's record in Sudan "is enough to make any human rights activist blanch." Dabi is accused of creating the "janjaweed," the militias that perpetrated much of the violence in Darfur. His involvement began only four years before the beginning of fierce regional violence that was later declared a genocide.
Kenner also raises other points for doubt in the mission's credibility.
Dabi's checkered past is only one of the criticisms of the observer mission, which human rights activists have criticized for falling far short of its promise to monitor the implementation of an Arab League initiative meant to end Assad's crackdown. Wissam Tarif, the Arab world coordinator for the human rights group Avaaz, slammed the mission for being far too small – at roughly 50 people – to monitor the situation across Syria, for failing to provide any biographical information about the observers to human rights organizations, and for relying on Assad's forces to shepherd them around the country.
The Daily Star reports that observers will visit three more "hot spots" on Thursday: Hama, a city with a long history of rebellion; Idlib, on the Turkish border and the site of fierce clashes between armed opposition members and security forces; and Deraa, where the uprising began in March.