BEIRUT Arab states may take their proposals for ending Syria's crackdown on protests to the U.N. Security Council next week unless Damascus agrees to implement the initiative, Qatar's foreign minister said on Saturday.
Expressing frustration that Syria had not carried out the plan, six weeks after it was first agreed, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said the window for an Arab solution to the crisis was closing.
"If this matter is not solved in the weeks ahead, or couple of months, it will no longer be in Arab control," he told journalists after an Arab ministerial committee meeting in Qatar. "That is what we told the Syrians from the beginning."
Arab ministers would vote on Wednesday on whether to ask the Security Council to approve the initiative. "I believe that December 21 will be decisive, and we hope that the brothers in Syria will sign (the deal) before this date," Sheikh Hamad said.
Syria has conditionally approved a plan to send monitors to oversee implementation of the November 2 Arab League initiative, which calls on Assad to withdraw the army from urban areas, release political prisoners and hold talks with opponents.
But Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said Damascus was objecting to the League's call for protection of Syrian civilians, saying members of the security forces were also being killed in the turmoil.
The United Nations says Assad's crackdown on the protests, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world this year, has killed more than 5,000 people. Authorities blame armed gangs for the violence and say 1,100 soldiers and police have been killed.
The Arab League suspended Syria and declared economic sanctions against Damascus over its failure to implement the initiative, joining the United States, European Union and neighbouring Turkey who have also imposed sanctions.
Long-time Syrian ally and arms supplier Russia took a step closer to the Western position on Thursday when it presented a surprise draft resolution at the United Nations which stepped up its criticism of the bloodshed in Syria.
Sheikh Hamad said that, in response to Moscow's move, the Arab League would meet on Wednesday to decide whether "to ask the Security Council to adopt the Arab initiative and Arab resolutions instead of resolutions from other states."
"We are not talking about military action but we will ask the Security Council to adopt the Arab initiative," Sheikh Hamad said, adding Syria should take heed of events in the Arab world where three leaders have been overthrown this year.
"Procrastination and banking on things quieting down or being controlled by security methods will not work," he said.
Any referral of the Arab plan to the United Nations would be likely to anger Damascus, which has accused unnamed Arab countries of trying to set the stage for foreign intervention.
The unrest is the most serious challenge to the 11-year rule of Assad, 46, whose family is from the minority Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam - and has dominated majority Sunni Muslim Syria since 1970.
An armed insurgency has begun to eclipse civilian protests, raising fears Syria could descend into civil war.
Two days ago army deserters killed 27 soldiers and security personnel in the southern province of Deraa, an activist group said. On Saturday at least 24 people were killed, half of them in the province of Homs, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
It said another eight people were killed in the southern province of Deraa after army deserters clashed with Assad's forces carrying out raids in the region.
A delegation from Shi'ite-led Iraq, which opposed the Arab League sanctions and fears unrest in Syria will spill across the border and upset its own delicate sectarian balance, stopped in Damascus on Saturday before travelling on to Cairo.
Assad met the Iraqi delegation, which included National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayad, and "affirmed that Syria dealt positively with all proposals submitted to it," the official news agency SANA reported.
"The delegation will present details of the Iraqi initiative to League officials on solving the Syrian crisis after positive discussions which we had with President Bashar al-Assad during our visit to Syria," a member of the team said on arrival in the Egyptian capital, the Arab League headquarters.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's media adviser, Ali al-Moussawi, earlier told Reuters in Baghdad that the meeting in Damascus was "very good."
The main exile opposition Syrian National Council was meeting in Tunisia on the first anniversary of the self-immolation of a jobless Tunisian graduate Mohamed Bouazizi, the incident that set off a wave of revolts around the Arab world.
Syrian protesters have expressed growing frustration that the Arab League, which surprised many when it suspended Syria and subsequently announced sanctions against Damascus, has since then extended the deadline for Syrian compliance several times.
Hundreds of thousands demonstrated on Friday, according to the British-based Observatory, under the slogan of "The Arab League is killing us."