By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Jan 17 (Reuters) - A Syrian rebel army chief urged the world on Tuesday to protect civilians in Syria, saying Arab peace monitors had failed to curb President Bashar al-Assad's violent response to a 10-month-old revolt against his rule.
Big powers have also proved unable to stop the bloodshed in Syria, where U.N. officials say more than 5,000 people have been killed and Damascus says its security forces have lost 2,000 dead.
Riad al-Asaad, Turkish-based commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, called for international intervention to replace the Arab observer mission, which has just days to run.
"The Arab League and their monitors failed in their mission and though we respect and appreciate our Arab brothers for their efforts, we think they are incapable of improving conditions in Syria or resisting this regime," he told Reuters by telephone.
"For that reason we call on them to turn the issue over to the U.N. Security Council and we ask that the international community intervene because they are more capable of protecting Syrians at this stage than our Arab brothers," Asaad said.
Iran condemned what it called foreign interference in the affairs of its closest Arab ally, Syria, and praised reforms President Assad has promised as "problem-solving".
"We are fundamentally against interfering in the affairs of other countries. We think it does not solve the problems but will only make them more complicated," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told a news conference.
Assad, while proffering reform, has vowed to crush his opponents with an "iron fist", but Syrians braving bullets and torture chambers appear equally determined to add him to the list of the past year's toppled Arab leaders.
Army deserters and other rebels have taken up arms against security forces dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect, pushing Sunni Muslim-majority Syria closer to civil war.
ROCKETS AND TANK FIRE
"Terrorists" firing rockets killed an officer and five of his men at a rural checkpoint near Damascus, and wounded seven others, the state news agency SANA reported on Tuesday, a day after gunmen assassinated a brigadier general near the capital.
Eight people were killed when a bomb hit a minibus on the Aleppo-Idlib road, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In Homs, tank fire crashed into the Khalidiya district after a night rally against Assad there, activists said. YouTube footage showed a crowd dancing at the rally and waving the old Syrian flag used before the Baath Party seized power in 1963.
The British-based Observatory said eight people were killed in violence in Homs, a flashpoint city of one million racked by unrest, crackdowns and Sunni-Alawite sectarian killings.
Activists also reported fighting between rebels and troops trying to edge into Khalidiya, a neighbourhood that is home to Sunni tribesmen and lies next to the Alawite district of Nozha.
Tanks were firing sporadically at the rebel-held town of Zabadani, near the Lebanese border, which has been under attack since Friday, activists said. They added that several soldiers who had tried to defect to the opposition had been killed.
Syrian forces shot dead a man at a roadblock in the restive Damascus suburb of Qatana, they said, and an activist was killed by sniper fire in the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun.
The Arab League must decide soon whether to withdraw its 165 monitors, whose mandate expires on Thursday, or keep them in Syria even though they are set to report that Damascus has not fully implemented a peace plan agreed on Nov. 2.
The Arab plan required Syria to halt the bloodshed, withdraw troops from cities, free detainees, provide access for the monitors and the media and open talks with opposition forces.
Qatar has proposed sending in Arab troops, a bold idea for the often sluggish League and one likely to be resisted by Arab rulers close to Assad and those worried about unrest at home.
Syria's foreign ministry said on Tuesday it was "astonished" at Qatar's suggestion, which it "absolutely rejected".
The League could ask the U.N. Security Council to act, but until now opposition from Russia and China has prevented the world body from even criticising Syria, an old ally of Moscow.
Western diplomats said a Russian draft resolution handed to the council on Monday did not make clear if Moscow would accept tough language demanded by the West.
Few Western powers favour any Libya-style military action in Syria, which lies in the heart of the conflict-prone Middle East. Bordering Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Israel, it is allied to Iran and the armed Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah group.
The United States, the European Union, Turkey and the Arab League have announced sanctions against Syria, but while these have hurt its economy, they have yet to prompt Assad to change course. Opposition to sanctions from some of Syria's trading partners, notably Lebanon and Iraq, also dilutes their impact.
Council members have been divided for months over the uprising against Assad, with Western countries pushing for strong condemnation of the government's bloody crackdown but Russia seeking to shield its ally Damascus.
In October, Russia and China vetoed a European-drafted resolution that threatened possible sanctions. Russia presented its own draft on Dec. 15 and Western countries agreed to discuss and negotiate it, but there has been little progress since then.
A Syrian lawmaker told Reuters on Monday he had fled the country to join the opposition after losing hope that Assad would enact reforms or stop the violence.
"Blood is in the streets," said Imad Ghalioun, from the restive city of Homs, who took refuge in Cairo two weeks ago.
"The whole country is bleeding. I do not think there will be any reforms because the young people have taken their decision," he said. "This is a revolution and there is no going back." (Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Mariam Karouny and Dominic Evans in Beirut; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)