Syria said Monday it would agree to allow Arab League observers into the country as part of a plan to end almost nine months of bloodshed, but placed a number of conditions, including the cancellation of deeply embarrassing economic sanctions.
Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby swiftly rebuffed Damascus' demands, and the Syrian opposition accused President Bashar Assad's regime of wasting time and trying to trick Arab leaders into reversing punitive measures against Damascus.
"Any announcements made by the Syrian regime while the military crackdown continuous has for us zero credibility," said Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group.
Syria has already failed to meet several Arab League ultimatums to end the crackdown which the U.N. says has killed more than 4,000 people since the uprising against Assad erupted in March.
Damascus' failure to meet a Nov. 25 deadline to allow in observers drew Arab League sanctions, including a ban on dealings with the country's central bank and a freeze on government assets. The bloc also imposed a travel ban on 19 Syrian officials, including Assad's younger brother Maher, who is believed to be in command of much of the crackdown, as well as Cabinet ministers, intelligence chiefs and security officers.
The sanctions dealt a big blow to a regime that sees itself as a powerhouse of Arab nationalism.
Combined with sanctions from the United States, the European Union and Turkey, the Arab League's penalties are expected to inflict significant damage on Syria's economy and may undercut the regime's authority.
Damascus remains defiant, however, and has shown few signs of easing its crackdown. Activists said security forces killed at least 12 people Monday, most of them in the restive central province of Homs. And the military conducted large-scale military exercises over the weekend that appeared to be designed as a warning to the international community not to interfere in the Syrian crisis.
Arab leaders had given Syria a new deadline of Sunday to respond to the League's plan to end the crisis, calling for the regime to halt attacks on protesters, pull tanks out of cities, release political prisoners and allow journalists, rights groups and observers into the country.
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem sent a letter Sunday to the Arab League chief in which he "responded positively" to the bloc's request to send observers to the country, ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said.
But Syria's approval was coupled with significant conditions: The Arab League would have to immediately drop sanctions and agree to amendments _ a condition that League officials have previously rejected.
Makdissi also said Syria is insisting that the protocol be signed in Damascus rather than at the League's headquarters in Cairo. He added al-Moallem's message contained some "minor amendments that won't affect the essence of the plan."
But Elaraby said the letter contains "new components which we have not heard of earlier," and told reporters in Cairo that Syria's agreeing to sign the deal will not lead to the immediate lifting of punitive measures.
"These sanctions are in force until another decision is adopted by the Arab foreign ministers," he said.
He said the new Syrian conditions are being "discussed now with the Arab foreign ministers" and that nothing has been decided yet.
Kodmani, the Paris-based spokeswoman for the opposition Syrian National Council, said Damascus was trying to "embarrass" the Arab League, adding there was absolutely no justification for lifting the sanctions within the current crackdown.
On Monday, the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the detention of U.S.-born blogger and press freedom campaigner Razan Ghazzawi, and called on Syrian authorities to immediately release her. Ghazzawi was arrested Sunday at the border while on her way to Jordan, according to a statement by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression where she worked.
Despite Syria's growing isolation and sanctions, Assad is still in control and has a number of powerful allies that give him the means to push back against outside pressure, although Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil as they did in Libya.
Syria wouldn't have to look far for prime targets to strike, sharing a border with U.S.-backed Israel and NATO-member Turkey.
The weekend maneuvers in Syria appeared to be designed to send this message.
The military exercises, which included missile tests and ground and air operations, were meant to test "the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression," state-run TV said. Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said "the maneuvers were routine and planned earlier."
Syria is known to have surface-to-surface missiles such as Scuds, capable of hitting deep inside its archenemy Israel.
State-run news agency SANA quoted Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha as telling the forces that participated in the maneuvers "to be in full readiness to carry out any orders give to them."
Associated Press Writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Egypt and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Lebanon contributed to this report.