CAIRO (AP) — The head of the Arab League observers in Syria defended his team's work Monday, saying its job is not to stop the violence stemming from the country's 10-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad.
Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi told reporters in Cairo that the mission's task rather is to monitor progress on the League's plan — which Damascus agreed to in December — to end the country's crisis.
"The delegation's mission is observation, not to stop killing or to stop destruction," al-Dabi said. "If the violence stops, we'll say that it has. And if this doesn't happen, we'll say so."
Many have criticized the Arab League observer mission, saying it has done little to stop Syria' slide into what some fear could become a full-fledged civil war. The United Nations says more than 5,400 people have been killed in a government crackdown since protesters first took to the streets against Assad in March.
The crisis has grown increasingly violent, however, in recent months, as opponents of Assad's regime and army defectors who have switched sides have started to fight back against government forces.
Some have raised concern over al-Dabi too because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity in Darfur. Al-Dabi's leadership has raised questions about whether Arab League member states, with some of the world's poorest human rights records, are fit to monitor Syria's compliance with the plan to end the crisis.
Al-Dabi said the observers' presence had cut down on the bloodshed in Syria.
"When the delegation arrived, there was clear and obvious violence," he said. "But after the delegation arrived, the violence started to go lessen gradually."
The observers have confirmed 136 killings, committed by both sides, since their arrival in Syria, al-Dabi said. The U.N. says 400 have been killed.
He said that in some areas, observers had found evidence of machine guns fired over people's heads. In other places, they saw evidence of direct clashes. In yet other regions, armed opposition groups attacked security forces who were "forced to respond to this fire," he said.
Al-Dabi also reported explosions targeting military and civilian targets outside of the capital Damascus. These "strange events" targeted civilian and military busses, gas lines and power stations, he said.
The delegation also found that 36 foreign media outlets are operating inside Syria. The Syrian government has greatly limited access of journalists to much of the country.
Despite the criticism of the observers, the Arab League on Sunday extended its mission for another month. It also presented a new initiative aimed at easing the crisis in which the opposition and the government are supposed to form a national unity government within two months to lead the country through a political transition.
The European Union endorsed the plan Monday. The Syrian government rejected it as a violation of the country's sovereignty.