Arab leaders meeting in Cairo on Sunday called for a renewed United Nations attempt to help halt violence in Syria, asking the Security Council to create a joint Arab-U.N. peacekeeping force to oversee implementation of a prospective cease-fire.
The Arab League request came eight days after a league initiative that called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to cede power was vetoed by Russia and China in the Security Council. Whether the latest Arab League measure would win their approval was unclear.
The Syrian government, a Russian ally, rejected the latest proposal as a "hostile act" and a blueprint for "foreign intervention in Syrian affairs," the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Meanwhile, Syrian rebels picked up an incendiary new supporter: Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, who in a video posted on the Internet called on Muslims from neighboring nations to back the almost yearlong uprising against Assad.
The Al Qaeda leader's plea came amid reports in the Arab and Western news media that Iraqi Al Qaeda operatives — with expertise in car bombs and roadside explosives previously used against U.S. forces — may already be fighting in Syria, which shares a long border and tribal ties with western Iraq.
Al Qaeda involvement would present the United States and other nations seeking to oust Assad with a thorny dilemma: Should the anti-Assad "Friends of Syria" coalition, as it is now known, back a side that includes Al Qaeda?
The secular Assad government regularly labels its opponents terrorists, and says it is fighting Islamic militants. The Arab League, Western powers and Turkey say that Assad's forces have repeatedly attacked peaceful demonstrators, turning a protest movement into an armed insurgency. The prospect of Islamic zealots seizing power terrifies many Syrians, especially minority groups such as Christians and members of Assad's Alawite sect, who fear an Iraq-style sectarian bloodletting.
Sunday's Arab League request for international peacekeepers appeared much broader than what many observers had expected. Officials had indicated that Arab League leaders would seek an Arab League-U.N. mission of unarmed observers.
There was no immediate reaction from Moscow, but it seemed improbable that Russia would embrace a call for the deployment of international peacekeepers, who would presumably be armed, though the Arab League plan does not specify whether they would be.
It was also unclear from the Arab League plan how a cease-fire would be imposed in the conflict that features both a bloody government crackdown on protesters and an armed insurgency against security forces.
Moscow has indicated enthusiasm for an expanded deployment of unarmed observers in Syria. But on Sunday, the Arab League formally ended its observer mission.
The Arab League also called on nations to cut diplomatic ties with Assad's government and vowed "political and financial support" for the Syrian opposition.
The Arab League also called on the Security Council to pass a resolution calling for an end to the violence in Syria and demanding access for humanitarian groups, including the Red Crescent and the Red Cross. The United Nations is expected to consider the proposals this week.
Meanwhile, opposition activists said fighting continued in various parts of Syria, including the central city of Homs, where five were reported killed, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition network. Nationwide, the group said, 23 people were killed. There was no way to verify the casualty figures because media access is limited.
Despite the violence, an amateur video posted online indicated that some residents of Homs, where entire neighborhoods have reportedly been under siege for more than a week, took advantage of a pause in the conflict to line up amid the rubble for a bread distribution truck. The city has been short on food, water and electricity as government forces have besieged opposition strongholds, the opposition says.
Marrouch is a special correspondent.