Hannah Allam

CAIRO, EGYPT: The Arab League suspended its Syria observation mission Saturday, saying it was too dangerous to continue, as battles between security and opposition forces raged just outside the capital, Damascus.


The Arab League has joined the United States and other powers in calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign, but the embattled leader shows no signs of budging as a 10-month revolt pushes the country to the brink of civil war.


Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said in a statement that he was suspending the mission, “given the critical deterioration of the situation in Syria and the continued use of violence.” A final decision about whether the mission will end is expected within days.


Syrian state television said the regime “regrets and is surprised” by the suspension, news wires reported.


The Arab League sent teams of monitors to Syria to observe the implementation of an Arab-brokered peace plan that virtually all parties had deemed dead on arrival. Human rights groups criticized the mission chief’s checkered past in Sudan, and some monitors quit in protest of the regime’s stage-managing of tours. Protesters complained the Arab League was only buying time for Assad.


Assad has criticized the Arab League as useless and made little apparent effort to comply with the call for violence from both sides to cease. The regime continues to besiege rebellious towns and a growing number of rebels are fighting back, aided by army deserters who’ve formed the Free Syrian Army.


Fierce battles erupted Saturday in three rebel-held Damascus suburbs. The Reuters news agency, citing Syrian activists reached by telephone, reported that about 100 defectors had joined the rebels, bringing along three tanks they operated.


Activist groups said six residents were killed in the fighting. Syria’s state news agency SANA said “terrorist groups” had killed seven soldiers in the Damascus suburbs. The reports could not be independently verified.


The United Nations said last month that Syrian security forces had killed some 5,000 people since the uprising began. The Syrian government says 2,000 of its forces had been killed in the same period.


Despite its failure to stop the bloodshed, the Arab League monitors’ mandate was extended for another month. The mission began to crumble last week, when Gulf states withdrew their observers because of the lack of progress.