CAIRO- 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 al-Assad.
The general who headed the Arab monitoring mission in Syria said on Monday that violence had dipped after the observers arrived, contradicting accounts by Syrian activists who have said the killing has continued unabated.
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.
"After the arrival of the mission, the intensity of violence began to decrease," al-Dabi told a news conference at the Cairo-based Arab League, echoing a line other League officials have taken.
"Our job was to check what is going on the ground and not investigate it," he said, adding that monitors had so far reported 136 deaths since they started their mission and that the number included supporters of both the opposition and the government.
"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."
Dabi's own appointment has also been criticized because of the Sudanese government's rights record in Darfur and other areas of Sudan where there has been unrest.
"I assure that the heavy military equipment has been withdrawn from all cities...," al-Dabi said.
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 that 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 criticism over the monitors' failure to end the bloodshed, the Arab ministers agreed to extend the mission, expand it and boost its technical and logistical support.
The extension was, however, overshadowed by Saudi Arabia's decision to withdraw its own monitors and urge the international community to exert "all possible pressure" on Damascus.
"The mission's role is monitoring and is not stopping the killing or stopping the destruction or otherwise," Dabi said, adding that the mission was sent to check whether Syria was adhering to an Arab peace plan.
That plan included calling for withdrawing the military from residential areas, releasing detainees, giving free access to the media and opening dialogue with the opposition.
"On releasing detainees, statements we got were based on general reports from opposition sources saying 12,000 have been detained or so but when we audited them we found that those reports lacked solid information and could not be verified," Dabi said.
Syria state-run SANA news agency reported al-Dabi stated that a number of terrorist bombings were launched against governmental institutions, gas and oil pipelines, bridges, electric power stations and pylons.
Al-Dabi said that thousands of detainees were released in the presence of the observers and that the mission's report is the result of members of the mission's observations and interviews throughout the Syrian governorates, according to SANA.
He underlined that the Syrian government was effectively cooperative and provided protection for the mission on roads, adding that the government didn't interfere in the mission's work or accompany it. Al-Dabi said that the Syrian government withdrew the army from cities, indicating that the mission's members were safe and that they were not harassed while doing their work, according to SANA too.
SANA also reported that al-Dabi said the credibility of media became in doubt and that some media establishments were tough in dealing with the mission, with some Arab media channels and institutions attacking the mission for not writing what they want.
Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi was speaking a day after Arab League foreign ministers proposed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hand power to a deputy and set up a new unity government, after earlier efforts failed to end bloodshed.
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.
Syrian activists have been critical of the mission saying it has simply bought time for President al-Assad`s regime without ending the violent 10-month crackdown on protests.
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.
Syria agreed on Dec. 19 to allow Arab League monitors into the country in exchange for the league dropping plans to go to the United Nations Security Council.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Arabi has sent a request to the Syrian government to extend the group’s monitoring mission from Jan. 24 to Feb. 24, the league’s spokesman, Wageeh Maleeha, told reporters Monday in Cairo.