The 22-member Arab League, meeting in Cairo on Sunday, adopted a resolution calling for renewed international efforts to end the 11-month conflict and scrapped its own monitoring mission to Syria.
Syria swiftly rejected the resolution, which called for “opening communication channels with the Syrian opposition and providing all forms of political and material support to it.” The league was also considering a proposal to expel Syrian ambassadors from Arab capitals.
“How long will we stay as onlookers to what is happening to the brotherly Syrian people, and how much longer will we grant the Syrian regime one period after another so it can commit more massacres against its people?” the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, asked at the start of the Cairo meeting.
After the meeting, the league said it would “ask the UN security council to issue a decision on the formation of a joint UN-Arab peacekeeping force to oversee the implementation of a ceasefire”.
Syria’s ambassador to the league rejected the resolution “completely”, Syria’s state news agency reported. He said Syria, which has been suspended from the league, would not accept any resolution decided in its absence.
The proposal follows the withdrawal of league monitors last month after the team encountered obstruction and the Syrian regime flouted the terms of its agreement.
The Sudanese general who led the monitors resigned on Sunday, claiming he had performed his role “with full integrity and transparency” but the situation was skewed. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, who had been criticised for his handling of the role, said he could no longer work within the framework of the league.
As part of Arab efforts, Tunisia said it would host the first meeting on 24 February of a “friends of Syria” contact group made of Arab and other states and backed by the west. The league called on the Syrian opposition to unite before then.
The Cairo meeting was intended to find fresh ways to put pressure on the Syrian regime after Russia and China vetoed a security council resolution backing an Arab plan urging the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to give up power.
In unusually strong language, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called the veto a “travesty”. Washington’s ambassador to the UN said it was “disgusting” and “any further bloodshed that flows will be on [Russia’s] and China’s hands.” Diplomatic pressure on the Syrian regime intensified on Sunday with a senior White House aide saying the US was pursuing “all avenues that we can”. Jacob Lew, the US president’s chief of staff, told Fox News: “The brutality of the Assad regime is unacceptable … There is no question that this regime will come to an end. The only question is when.”
William Hague, the foreign secretary, said: “There can no longer be any doubt that President Assad has lost legitimacy. I call on him again to spare the Syrian people from the atrocities of his regime, step aside, and allow a peaceful transition to a new Syria.”
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the most senior figure in al-Qaida since the death of Osama bin Laden, called on Muslims to support the Syrian uprising against Assad’s “pernicious, cancerous regime”.
In a videotaped message released on Saturday, Zawahri said the Syrian opposition could not depend on the west for help, and urged Muslims in the neighbouring countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to join the fighting.
In Homs, which came under sustained bombardment last week by the Syrian army, killing hundreds of residents, a lull in the assault was broken by renewed shelling on Sunday afternoon. At least four people were killed, activists said.
Food and medicine are running short in the city, which remains besieged by government forces, and people have been trapped indoors for days. Local activists said more than 400 people had died since the attack began the previous Saturday.