By Edmund Blair and Ayman Samir
CAIRO (Reuters) - Arab foreign ministers will discuss a proposal next week to send a joint U.N.-Arab mission to Syria, a senior Arab League official said on Thursday, after a solely Arab team failed to end President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protests.
Ministers meet in Cairo on Sunday to consider whether to extend or scrap an observer mission sent to Syria in December. The mission, criticized by Syria's opposition, faced internal dissent and retreated to hotels for safety as violence surged.
One Arab diplomat said the ministerial meeting could also issue a statement on a decision by Russia and China to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that was based on an Arab peace plan and which had the backing of Western powers. The Russian and Chinese veto drew Arab criticism.
Syrian government artillery barrages killed dozens of civilians in Homs in central Syria on Thursday, activists said. Damascus has ignored appeals to halt the carnage.
"There is a proposal from the secretary-general of the Arab League to form a joint mission for Syria in coordination with the United Nations, and it will be presented before the planned Arab foreign ministers' meeting on Sunday in Cairo," the League's deputy head, Ahmed Ben Helli, told reporters.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said this week a new mission could be sent but it would have to be larger than the first observer mission, better equipped and go with a different mandate. He also said it needed international backing.
Elaraby told Reuters in the interview that the Russian and Chinese veto had lost the two powers credit in the Arab world, though he said the Arabs would continue working with them "because we need them".
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday Elaraby had proposed sending a mission to Syria with U.N. help.
It was not immediately clear if the Security Council would have to approve U.N. involvement in such a mission. Western diplomats in New York reacted to the idea without enthusiasm.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and German Ambassador Peter Wittig said that their governments were studying the idea.
"It's something we'll have to ponder about very carefully," Wittig told reporters, adding that the council would take up the issue soon. Another diplomat described the idea of a joint U.N.-Arab League mission as "one of many options".
Another diplomat said discussions were at an early stage.
"I think what we would want to see would be a mission that was really making a difference, not just standing by and watching people being killed," said the diplomat, who asked not to be identified.
Some 165 observers were sent to Syria and the plan had been to raise that to 200. The team chief initially reported a dip in violence but then noted a spike in late January. Six Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco have pulled their observers out.
Those observers left were then pulled back to their hotels due to surging violence. Ben Helli said the remaining observers had been given permission to leave Syria for a break and said they would return, depending on the decision by the ministers.
He said this did not mean they had been withdrawn. A League source said staff in the operations room, which handles logistics and other issues, had stayed.
The ambassador of a Gulf state to the League, who declined to be named, earlier called for sending an Arab or international peacekeeping force to Syria and for imposing an arms embargo on Assad's government.
"It's absolutely unacceptable that we see on a daily basis hundreds of civilian deaths in Homs and other Syrian cities. This international silence and the use of the veto against condemning the Syrian regime is a moral and political scandal by any measure," the diplomat said.
The U.N. resolution, blocked by Moscow and Beijing, included calling for Assad to step aside and hand power to a deputy and for talks to start with the opposition after that.
An Arab diplomat compared the latest proposal for a U.N.-Arab mission to Syria to the U.N.-Africa Union force UNAMID which was sent to Sudan's war-torn western Darfur region.
UNAMID is a military force of peacekeepers, and one that U.N. officials and Western delegations have criticized as ineffective, partly because it is a joint operation. The diplomat cautioned that any mission would need approval from Damascus. That echoed a point also made by Elaraby that, ultimately, Syria had to agree to accept any mission.
Arab states and Western powers have rejected any foreign military intervention despite demanding action to end violence.
The Arab diplomat said the ministerial meeting on Sunday could issue a statement on Russia and China, adding that the explanations they gave for their decision to veto the resolution "could not be accepted by all Arab officials".
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York; Writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Andrew Roche and Sandra Maler)