By Reuters reporters
Arab League monitors could hardly have confronted more tragic evidence of the bloodshed convulsing Syria than the corpse of a 5-year-old boy laid out on a rug in a mosque in the city of Homs.
His name is Ahmed Mohammed al-Rai, a man tells the two monitors. Look at this. This happened despite the presence of the Arab League.
A mourner then pulls back the white shroud to show a bloodied bandage and a bullet hole in the boy's back. The scene was captured on an activist's mobile phone, posted on Youtube. YouTube The deployment of dozens of Arab League peace monitors to Syria was the first international intervention on the ground in nine months of ferociously repressed protests against President Bashar al-Assad's government.
But if it initially raised hopes among the opposition, the prospects of them bringing an immediate end to the violence were soon shown to be dim.
Three days into the mission, a harassed-looking monitor told a restless crowd in a mosque in the Damascus suburb of Douma: Our goal is to observe...it is not to remove the president, our aim to is return Syria to peace and security. Footage of the incident was broadcast by al-Jazeera.
The crackdown by government forces appears to have gone on unabated since the first monitor teams arrived in Syria, with about 139 anti-government protesters killed across the country, by a Reuters count.
Syrian protesters, opposition leaders and foreign commentators are now questioning the worth of the monitors' mission, some suggesting it will merely provide a cover for further repression. The appointment of a general from Sudan, a country with a dire human rights record, to lead it has also cast doubt on its integrity.
What it can realistically do to force the Assad government to ease the crackdown and negotiate with the opposition -- and what it can do if he refuses -- is unclear.
A blow was dealt to the peace mission on Sunday, when an Arab League advisory panel said it should give up in light of the unrelenting bloodshed.
This is giving the Syrian regime an Arab cover for continuing its inhumane actions under the eyes and ears of the Arab League, chairman Ali al-Salem al-Dekbas said in Cairo.
The revolt in Syria, ruled by the Assad dynasty for 41 years, broke out last March following the overthrow of Western-backed strongmen in Egypt and Tunisia and the outbreak of uprisings in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world.
More than 5,000 people have been killed, according to a United Nations estimate, shot by snipers, blasted by tank fire, or victims of torture or summary execution.
The government blames the violence on foreign-inspired terrorists and says more than 2,000 members of its security forces have been killed. Peaceful civilian protests have given way to an armed insurgency led by the Free Syrian Army, whose ranks are filled with army defectors and led by Riad al-Asaad, a former army colonel.
The West, while deploring the violence and imposing sanctions, has resisted an intervention of the sort that hastened Muammar Gaddafi's end in Libya.
Russia, which has a naval base in Syria and is its main arms supplier, and China also oppose intervention.
But a full-scale civil war could wreak havoc with the strategic balance in the Middle East.
The Arab League, a pan-Arab organisation, took action by suspending Syria and imposing sanctions. The moves were aimed in part at mollifying the various countries' own populations, who have been enraged by footage of the carnage spread through social media and the Arab TV station al-Jazeera.
The Arab League mission was charged with monitoring a peace plan under which Assad had agreed to pull tanks and troops out of the cities, free detainees and start talks with his opponents. It would also allow in international media, most of whom have been banned from the country, making verification of reported bloodshed difficult.
It got off to a tricky start.
On the day the first monitors arrived in the capital Damascus, army tanks pulverised restive areas of Homs, one of the centres of the revolt, killing about three dozen people, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
When monitors arrived in Homs the next day, December 28, snipers were posted on roof tops overlooking the rubbish-strewn streets, where pools of blood still dotted the sidewalks. People came out to greet them, only to find the monitors were under a Syrian army escort.
One video clip posted on the internet showed them touring Homs' Baba Amr district, an area ringed by army checkpoints and sandbagged positions.
Residents shouted at them and tugged at their jackets, pleading with them to enter neighbourhoods to see the destruction that has left whole sections of the city in ruins and led to a virtual state of siege.
Their car was mobbed by people shouting those who kill their people are traitors. But many resident refused to speak due to the presence of a Syrian army colonel.
In another video, monitors in orange vests took shelter behind a building from shooting and explosions. They later abandoned the trip.
People were disappointed, to say the least, with Sudanese Lieutenant General Mustafa al-Dabi's initial assessment after a first, brief tour that day.
There were some places where the situation was not good, Dabi told Reuters. But there wasn't anything frightening, at least while we were there.
The choice of Dabi to head the mission had already caused concern among human rights groups and Syria watchers.
He has held senior Sudanese military and government posts, including in the Darfur region, where the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court says the army carried out war crimes and the United Nations says 300,000 people may have died.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted by the Hague-based ICC for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, said his choice was a sign the Arab League might not want its monitors to produce findings that would force it to take stronger action.
They want it shaped in ways that will minimise the obligation to do more than they already have, he said.
Amnesty International said Sudan's military intelligence at the time Dabi led it was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, disappearance, and torture or numerous people in Sudan. His appointment risked undermining the League's efforts, it said.
He obviously does not fit the profile as a human rights monitor, Human Rights Watch said.
PEACEFUL PROTESTS, MORE REPRESSION
In the next few days of their mission, the monitors fanned out across the country visiting the cities of Deraa, Idlib and Hama --the latter a place of particular resonance to the anti-Assad movement as 30,000 people were massacred there in 1982 in a crushed revolt against his father, then President Hafez al-Assad.
Eager to show the strength and fervour of their uprising, tens of thousands of people took to the streets, culminating in mass demonstrations after Friday prayers on Dec 30.
The litany of bloodshed also continued -- 25 people killed on December 29, 12 killed on December 30, 17 killed on December 31, 8 killed on January 1.
Protesters held up banners with the names of the dead, clapping and shouting peaceful, peaceful and The people want to see you executed Bashar.
This mission is a big lie, said a protester named Tamir in Homs. They say they were in the Khalidiya neighbourhood, I haven't seen them. We've been here at the protest. Where were they?
A week into the mission, the question being asked is - is this a futile, perfunctory mission aimed mainly at giving the appearance that the world is acting? Or is it doing its best under difficult and dangerous circumstances and should be given more time?
Nikolaos Van Dam, a Dutch Syria expert and former diplomat, said the Arab League mission was at least a move in the absence of any other initiative.
I can understand very well that people are impatient. They want to see immediate results, that immediately the violence stops. So I think although the mission has not produced what the opposition, the peaceful opposition would have liked, it's too early to draw the conclusion that it's a failure.
Operating under the watchful eyes of the government, the monitors may well decide that discretion is the better part of valour.
I would suggest to wait and see. If the mission comes to the conclusion that it is as bad, or even half as bad, as the opposition has been describing, this is already quite something. It could be reported to the U.N. Security Council, Van Dam said.
But Waheed Abdel Maguid of Cairo's Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic studies said he felt the mission had nothing to offer.
I am afraid that the monitoring team might unintentionally turn into a false witness, Maguid said. The Arab League doesn't have anything more to offer. It is dragging its feet, not to defend the Syrian regime but to delay international interference.
Arab League officials stressed that the mission's brief was to report back on whether the Syrian military was withdrawing from the cities and if detained protesters had been released. It was not to prepare the ground for a foreign intervention.
On Monday night, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said the peace monitors were helping to ease the violence. Troops had withdrawn from cities and nearly 3,500 prisoners had been set free, he said. But gunfire still cracked out across the land.
Elaraby will meet foreign ministers from Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Qatar and Oman on Saturday to discuss a preliminary report, league sources told Reuters in Cairo.
Unobstructed access and uncensored testimony will be crucial to the success of the mission but it is relying on the government for transport and security.
Members of the Syrian National Council, an opposition political group set up in exile, said they were concerned by the shadowing of the monitors by Syria's feared security services. They had wanted the Arab League to send far more than just the 200 monitors it will eventually deploy across a country of 23 million people.
We hope that the Arab initiative will prevent us from getting into civil war and foreign interference, SNC official Burham Ghalioun said.
The opposition, and international human rights groups, are also worried about the fate of detainees. More than 100,000 people have been arrested and some have now been transferred to military barracks and ships, they said.
There is a big danger that the Syrian regime kills those prisoners in order to be able to say that there were no detainees, Ghalioun said.
Issam Ishak, a high-level SNC member, was prepared to give the Arab League mission the benefit of the doubt and said its very presence had given heart to the people risking their lives in the uprising.
The Arab League has not embarked on such a mission before and it shows, but the monitors have to be given a chance. Their presence is helping further erode the fear factor and is encouraging the expansion of the protests, he said.