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Leading article: Alarming signs of a whitewash in Syria

The Arab League monitoring mission in Syria is in danger of descending into bloody farce.

The 60-strong delegation is there to oversee a peace plan, to which the regime has nominally agreed, requiring troops and heavy weapons to be withdrawn from Syrian cities. But far from quelling the violence that has claimed more than 5,000 lives since March, the first week of the month-long visit has seen an escalation in tension, which culminated in clashes between government forces and tens of thousands of demonstrators yesterday.

That the violence has increased is, in itself, no indictment of the observers. Protesters have taken to the streets in greater numbers precisely because the foreign team is there, in the hope of either provoking a repressive response from the government, or of passing unmolested and so drawing more people to their banners. Rather more alarming are the complaints that the observers' movements are restricted by the security services, that there has been limited engagement with protesters, and that civilians have been shot in cities even while monitors were visiting them. Such criticisms require immediate answers if the integrity of the mission is to be maintained.

Most disturbing of all, however, are the comments from General Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the delegation, describing the situation in Homs as "reassuring" even as film footage surfaced that appeared to show his monitors witnessing heavy gunfire and civilian casualties.

The Sudanese general was a controversial appointment from the start. As a former military intelligence chief and loyalist of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir – who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur – General Dabi was a questionable choice to head an investigation into human-rights abuses. His performance so far has done nothing to allay the concerns.

The general's supporters may argue that his more recent career monitoring the Darfur ceasefire makes him exactly the man for the job. But even the most sympathetic reading of his past cannot deflect the many distracting questions his selection raises – not least how far it signals an Arab League desire that its monitors not find anything contentious.

Unless General Dabi is replaced and the Arab League mission put on a footing more clearly independent of the Assad regime, it will forfeit all credibility. And with Syrians losing their lives at the hands of their government on a daily basis, an international whitewash is not just immoral but actively counterproductive.