CAIRO Arab League foreign ministers proposed on Sunday that Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad hand over power to a deputy and set up a new unity government, after their earlier peace plan failed to end 10 months of bloodshed.
They said the League would ask the U.N. Security Council to endorse its new plan. It appeared highly unlikely that Assad, who has mocked the League and pledged in a recent speech to intensify a crackdown on "terrorists" and "conspirators", would agree to it.
The Arab League proposal envisages the creation of a unity government as a prelude to early parliamentary and presidential elections, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said after a day of Arab meetings on the Syrian crisis.
He compared the proposal to a Gulf plan on Yemen, which saw President Ali Abdullah Saleh agree to hand over power.
It was not clear, however, how the League might enforce its latest plan, given the failure of an Arab observer team in Syria to end the Assad governmen's repression of an uprising in which the United Nations says 5,000 people have died.
"We ask that the Syrian regime leave and hand over power," Sheikh Hamad said. "We are with the Syrian people, with their will and with their aspirations."
Deep splits among the 22 member states have complicated the Arab League's efforts to take a strong stand on the Syrian crisis, but Sunday's proposal was approved by all save Lebanon, a smaller neighbour which has consistently opposed escalation. Algeria objected to taking the plan to the Security Council.
The main opposition Syrian National Council, which has urged the Arab League for weeks to refer the Syrian crisis to the UN Security Council, welcomed the initiative.
"This confirms that all Arab countries today consider the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad to be finished and that it must be replaced," SNC chief Burhan Ghalioun told a news conference in Cairo, where the foreign ministers met.
The Security Council is also split on how to address the crisis, with Western powers demanding tougher sanctions and a weapons embargo, and Assad's ally Russia preferring to leave the Arabs to negotiate a peaceful outcome.
Asked about a previous Arab threat to impose sanctions on Assad, Sheikh Hamad said: "Arab economic sanctions will be imposed via the Security Council." He did not elaborate.
EXTENSION OF OBSERVER MISSION
The new proposal came after Arab League monitors, in Syria since late December, found that Assad had failed to fully comply with an earlier plan to end violence, withdraw troops from urban areas, free detainees and allow protests.
Despite criticism over the monitors' failure to end the bloodshed, the foreign 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.
"My country will withdraw its monitors because the Syrian government did not execute any of the elements of the Arab resolution plan," Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal said.
"We are calling on the international community to bear its responsibility, and that includes our brothers in Islamic states and our friends in Russia, China, Europe and the United States," he said, calling for "all possible pressure".
While none have so far followed suit, a diplomatic source said the remaining Gulf states backed the Saudi position.
Qatar, which has led calls for escalation, said it was time to rethink the mission and consider sending Arab peacekeepers.
"The reality says that the bloodshed has not stopped and the killing machine is still working and violence is spread everywhere," Sheikh Hamad told the ministers earlier on Sunday.
He clarified that the Qatari idea, floated by the emir earlier this month, did not envisage a Libya-style military campaign against Syria but armed troops to enforce the peace.
The idea of a military campaign in Syria, which would require unanimous endorsement, had not been discussed or agreed.
Hundreds of Syrians have been killed since the unarmed civilian observers began their work. At least three monitors have told Reuters of deep civilian suffering and complained that the Syrian government has shown no will to end the crackdown.
Arab League ministers have called before for dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition but Sunday's eight-point initiative laid out the details along with a timeframe.
It sees the creation of the new unity government within two months and elections three months later to a constituent body which would draft a new constitution to be put to a referendum.
It also sees Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby dispatching a personal representative to Syria to follow up on the plan.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, regional rivals of Syria and its ally Iran, are impatient for decisive action against Assad. But suggestions to send in U.N. experts to support the Arab observers have made little headway and Damascus has said it would accept an extension of the observer mission but not an expansion in its scope.
Some states worry that weakening Assad could tip Syria, with its potent mix of religious and ethnic allegiances, into a deeper conflict that would destabilise the entire region. Some fear unrest among their own populations if he were toppled.
Syria, keen to avoid tougher foreign action, has tried to show it is complying with an initial Arab peace plan.
This month the Syrian authorities freed hundreds of detainees, announced an amnesty, struck a ceasefire deal with armed rebels in one town, allowed observers into some troublespots and admitted some foreign journalists. Assad has also promised reforms. The violence, however, has continued.
Two Syrian army officers, an infantryman, a rebel and two civilians died in clashes on Sunday in Talfita, a village near Damascus, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syria says 2,000 security personnel have been killed in the revolt.
Intermittent fighting continued in the town of Douma, nine miles (14 km) northwest of the capital, which had been encircled by the military, said the UK-based rights group.
An opposition activist and a rebel fighter in Douma told Reuters by telephone the fighting had eased and the rebels held about two thirds of its main streets.
Masked fighters had set up checkpoints and a funeral procession for five civilians killed on Saturday was passing through the town, they said. Angry cries could be heard in the background as they spoke.
The rebel fighter said there were several casualties on Sunday but no confirmed deaths.
(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut and Ayman Samir and Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo; Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Andrew Roche)