BEIRUT (Reuters) - An Arab observer mission will limp on in Syria after a Gulf pullout led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar but the two have also engineered an unprecedented Arab League call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo on Sunday also asked the U.N. Security Council to endorse their Syria plan, which Damascus has rejected as blatant interference in its affairs.
The exit of 55 Gulf monitors dealt another blow to the 165-strong team's credibility, after a month in which bloodshed raged on in their midst, although a remaining monitor insisted they would be replaced and the mission would be unaffected.
"The decision to leave was political," said a Gulf observer heading for Damascus airport on Wednesday, asking not to be named. "Islamic and Arab countries will send more monitors."
Asked if their departure would damage the mission, he said with a smile: "Not really, we are all Arabs."
The monitoring mission has been condemned by Syrian opposition groups as a mechanism to buy more time for Assad to try to crush demonstrators and armed rebels. But the mission, with its limited mandate to observe but not investigate, also allowed an internally divided League and an equally divided U.N. Security Council to defer concrete action on Syria.
Nevertheless, the League's demand that the autocratic Assad end his 11-year-rule as part of a power transition in Syria is unprecedented in its 67-year history.
"What have the Arab League guys been drinking?" asked Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based analyst who hailed the new approach.
The observer mission is the first mounted by the Arab League, awoken from its former somnolence by a wave of popular revolts that toppled three entrenched Arab rulers in 2011.
Figures given by Syrian opposition groups and the state news agency SANA suggest that hundreds of people have been killed since the monitors arrived, although their leader, Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, put the death toll at just 136.
He said the level of killings had dropped. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a news conference on Tuesday that the number of civilians, soldiers and policemen killed in Syria had tripled since the Arab monitors arrived, accusing rebels of "exploiting their presence.
The League's call last year for a no-fly zone to protect Libyans from Muammar Gaddafi's forces paved the way for a Western air campaign that helped rebels oust him, breaking the 22-member body's tradition of superficial solidarity.
Unlike the peripheral Libya, Syria straddles the main fissures of Middle East conflict, including its alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, reinforcing Arab League reluctance to seek another outside military intervention in an Arab country.
However, the League surprised many diplomats by setting a timetable for Assad to hand power to his deputy, pending formation of an interim unity government, constitutional and security reforms, and elections.
All the League's members backed the call for Assad to go except for Syria, suspended for ignoring an earlier Arab peace deal, and Lebanon, which "dissociated" itself in a nod to the political power of pro-Syrian Lebanese groups such as Hezbollah.
The Saudi-led push for a strong Arab stance stems in part from the kingdom's Sunni rulers' desire to weaken their Shi'ite regional adversary Iran by dislodging Assad, whose Shi'ite-rooted Alawite minority rules Sunni-majority Syria.
Syria has itself pointed out the irony of Gulf monarchies leading demands for democratic reforms that they shun at home.
Peter Harling, Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the Arab League had been engaged constructively and that without the observers the violence might have been worse.
"Unfortunately, its more assertive members are those with the least credibility to take the lead: Gulf monarchies that united to put down popular protests in Bahrain tend to adopt a sectarian perspective on regional events and have paid only lip service to reforms at home," he wrote in Foreign Policy.
"Other Arab countries are essentially in disarray, bogged down by domestic tensions, fearful of more regional instability, and distrustful of the West, given its track record of making things worse, not better, in this part of the world."
Harling said the Arab plan gave Syria a chance to "recognise the reality of its domestic crisis and negotiate an exit, while fending off any risk of hands-on Western involvement."
Qatar, which took part in the military campaign in Libya, has proposed sending Arab troops to Syria, an idea that so far has left other Arab countries cold, including Saudi Arabia.
"The Saudis don't want a precedent of military intervention for democracy promotion," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at Oklahoma University. "What about Bahrain or even the Shi'ites of the Eastern Province in Saudi Arabia who have been demonstrating for change and the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy?"