BEIRUT — Syria signed an Arab League initiative Monday that will allow Arab observers into the country, Syria's foreign minister said, as part of an effort to end the nation's increasingly bloody 9-month-old crisis.
Up to now Damascus balked at signing the deal. The regime's final acceptance of it was a response to mounting international pressure to end a bloody crackdown that the U.N. says has killed at least 5,000 people and shows signs of descending into civil war.
Syria also appears to prefer to give Arab nations a chance to end a crisis instead of inviting wider international involvement.
"The signing of the protocol is the beginning of cooperation between us and the Arab League, and we will welcome the Arab League observers," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told reporters in Damascus.
He said that the observers will have a one-month mandate that can be extended by another month if both sides agree. The observers will be "free" in their movements and "under the protection of the Syrian government," he said, but will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.
Last month Syria agreed to an Arab League plan to end the crisis. It called for removing Syrian forces and heavy weapons from city streets, starting talks with opposition leaders and allowing human rights workers and journalists into the country, along with Arab League observers. Despite its agreement, Syria then posed conditions that made implementation impossible.
A Syrian-based anti-regime activist who identifies himself as Abu Hamza said that now the Syrian regime "has signed something that they cannot implement." He said if the government withdraws the military from the streets, huge demonstrations will take pace throughout the country.
"This will automatically lead to the downfall of the regime," Abu Hamza said, declining to give his real name for fear of retribution.
As the agreement was signed, security forces shot and killed at least three people in the southern province of Daraa and a demonstration in Damascus' central neighborhood of Midan, where a child was wounded, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Three soldiers were also killed in a clash between troops and army defectors in the northern town of Maaret al-Numan, the observatory said.
Another activist group said Monday's death toll throughout Syria was 14.
The Arab League had given Syria until Wednesday to sign the agreement, warning that if Damascus did not, the League would likely turn to the U.N. Security Council for action to try to end the President Bashar Assad's crackdown on the uprising that the U.N. says has killed at least 5,000 people.
The agreement was signed at the Arab League's Cairo headquarters after the 22-member bloc accepted amendments demanded by Syria, al-Moallem said. He did not say what they were.
In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said a mission headed by one of his assistants will head to Syria "within a day or two." He said it will include legal, administrative, financial and human rights experts to discuss the makeup of the observer teams.
"Each group of observers will contain 10 or more people and will go to different places," said Elaraby. He said Syrian opposition groups will outline their views at the Arab League soon, and then the Syrian government will be invited to give its input about reforms.
"The important thing in any agreement is the implementation and good intentions from all parties," Elaraby told reporters in Cairo.
Many regime opponents have in the past accused Assad of waffling on the deal as a way to gain time as he continues his crackdown. They expressed skepticism that the regime will cooperate even after signing the initiative.
The Syrian revolt began in mid-March as peaceful protesters emboldened by uprisings across the Arab world took to the streets to demand an end to the Assad family's more than 40-year rule. But there has been a sharp escalation in armed clashes recently, raising concerns the country of 22 million is slipping toward civil war.
The regime claims armed gangs and terrorists are behind the uprising, not protesters seeking more freedoms in one of the most totalitarian regimes in the Middle East.
Al-Moallem sought to reinforce that line Monday, saying "the observers will come to see with their own eyes that there are armed terrorist groups that are sabotaging and killing people."
The 22-member Arab League already has suspended Syria's membership and imposed sanctions.
Elaraby said that the signing of the protocol does not mean that the sanctions would be suspended immediately. He said such a decision would have to be approved by the Arab League Council at ministerial level.