(Adds Assad speaking on Tuesday, para 9)
* Arab League defers any recourse to U.N. Security Council
* Opposition says toothless mission buys time for Damascus
* League to meet again Jan. 19 after full observer report
By Alistair Lyon
BEIRUT, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Syrian opposition figures said on Monday the presence of the Arab League monitoring mission in Syria was only giving authorities more time to crush their opponents with violence.
The League observers, who began work on the ground two weeks ago, have so far failed to stop the suppression of protests against President Bashar al-Assad in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed in 10 months.
After a review meeting in Cairo on Sunday, the Arab League said the government had only partly implemented a pledge to stop the bloodshed, free detainees and withdraw troops from cities.
Adnan Khodeir, head of the monitors’ operations room in the Egyptian capital, said more observers would reach Syria this week, bringing the team’s strength to 200 from 165 now.
“The initial report is too vague, and it essentially buys the regime more time,” said Rima Fleihan, a member of the Syrian National Council, a leading opposition group in exile.
“We need to know what the League will do if the regime continues its crackdown in the presence of the monitors. At one point it needs to refer Syria to the U.N. Security Council.”
The Arab League appears divided over whether to take such a step, which in the case of Libya led to foreign military intervention that helped rebels topple Muammar Gaddafi.
Russia and China have opposed any Security Council move on Syria, while Western powers hostile to Assad have so far shown little appetite for Libya-style intervention in a country that sits in a far more combustible area of the Middle East.
Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of neighbouring Turkey, said on Monday his country was threatened by the conflict and should take a leading role in dousing it.
“The situation in Syria is heading towards a religious, sectarian, racial war, and this needs to be prevented,” he told a news conference in Ankara.
Syria’s official news agency said Assad would make a speech on Tuesday about “internal issues and international and regional developments”, without giving details.
Gunfire erupted near a car carrying Arab monitors away from an anti-Assad demonstration they had attended in the turbulent city of Homs on Monday, but no one was hurt, activists said.
As with most events in Syria, where most independent media are banned, it was impossible to verify the account.
Rami Abdulrahman, of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said keeping the Arab monitors in Syria without a substantial increase in their numbers would only “give the regime more time to deal with the Syrian revolution”.
He said Syrian authorities had hidden tanks in military and security compounds or repainted armoured vehicles in blue police colours to mislead monitors. Only a small proportion of the thousands of detainees seized during the unrest had been freed, he added.
Syrian officials say they are fighting “terrorism” by subversives armed from abroad, not a broad-based revolt against more than four decades of Assad family rule. The authorities say their foes have killed 2,000 security force members.
Arab League officials said the future of the monitoring mission, due to make a full report on Jan. 19, depended on the Syrian government’s commitment to ending the daily bloodshed.
“If the ... report comes out saying the violence has not stopped, the Arab League will have a responsibility to act on that,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told a news conference after the Cairo meeting.
He did not outline any next step by the League, which suspended Syria in November for failing to comply with an agreed peace plan. The 22-member body also announced sanctions, but these do not appear to have been fully implemented.
The Arab plan called for tolerance of peaceful protests, a political dialogue and free access for foreign media.
There was no formal Syrian government response to the Cairo meeting, but the state-appointed mufti Ahmed Hassoun, Syria’s most senior Muslim authority, gave a defiant message.
“The land of Sham (Syria) will not be humiliated,” he said in a Damascus church during multi-faith prayers for 26 people the government said were killed by a suicide bomber on Friday.
“Those who want Syria to be an arena for their own agenda against the will of its people, I say to the Arab League and to the United Nations that Syria has angels ... that will fly over it until resurrection day,” Hassoun said.
Hundreds of people have been killed since Syria first agreed to the Arab plan, most of whose provisions remain unfulfilled.
“We have no doubt in our minds that the Syrian authorities are doing everything they can to avoid any form of scrutiny,” said Nadim Houry, a Beirut-based Human Rights Watch campaigner.
Qatar, which chairs the Arab League committee on Syria, has acknowledged “mistakes” made by the observers, but its proposal that U.N. experts be invited to help them was not accepted.
“The problem with these missions is that mistakes are costly because every day people are dying,” said Houry.
Ahmad al-Khatib, a member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, said the Arab League report “could have been more damning”, but at least it recognised the need for more monitors to observe unrest and repression across a nation of 23 million.
“The Arab League seems to want to keep a line open with the Syrian regime and not risk having the monitors expelled or see their work further restricted,” he told Reuters.
The League communique called on the Syrian opposition to present its own political vision and asked the League’s secretary general to convene a Syrian opposition meeting.
Syrian opposition groups have struggled to unify or to form a widely accepted representative council.
They are split over the role of armed resistance in what began as a peaceful protest movement, the weight Islamist groups should have in any joint opposition body, and the scope for Arab, U.N. or other external action to drive Assad from power. (Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Dominic Evans and Mariam Karouny in Beirut and Yasmine Saleh and Ayman Samir in Cairo; Editing by Andrew Roche)