BEIRUT -- The head of the U.N. monitoring mission in Syria warned Friday that his team of unarmed observers cannot stop the bloodshed in the crisis-torn country without sustained dialogue between the government and the opposition.
"No volume of observers can achieve a progressive drop and a permanent end to the violence if the commitment to give dialogue a chance is not genuine," Gen. Robert Mood, the Norwegian chief of the nearly 260-strong monitoring mission, said at a news conference in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
With international military intervention ruled out and rounds of sanctions having little impact on stopping the bloodshed, world powers are hoping -- but aren't confident -- that U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan bears fruit.
"We have the political track -- the Annan plan," a Damascus-based Western diplomat told The Times in a recent interview. "No intervention and then the sanctions. What do we have left?"
Mood insisted, however, that the observers make a difference: "We are seeing in the areas where we are deployed that we have both a calming effect on the ground and we are seeing that we have a good dialogue and the dialogue is expanding both with the authorities and the opposition elements."
Dialogue, however, has been limited between the government and the rebels. The Assad administration insists it is facing foreign-backed terrorists, and the opposition says it will not talk to the government as long as the killings go on.
His remarks came amid activist reports that shells and rockets were striking the rebel stronghold of Rastan, a town in central Homs province, where a government offensive to retake territory has been underway for several days.
Syrian opposition groups also reported violence across the country Friday, including the city of Aleppo. Anti-government demonstrators took to the streets there under the slogan "Heroes of Aleppo University" in solidarity with students who ignored a crackdown on dissenters.
A raid on the university's dorms this month that killed four students appears to have spurred anti-government sentiments in a city that has largely been on the sidelines since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began more than a year ago.
The British-based Syrian opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that the protests in Aleppo were the largest to date in the city. Amateur video footage purportedly filmed at a demonstration showed a large crowd marching down a street waving Syrian pre-Baath flags.
By late Friday afternoon, the Syrian activist network Local Coordination Committees said it had recorded 22 deaths across Syria.
Syria's official SANA news agency for its part claimed five law enforcement personnel were killed by "terrorists" in different provinces across the country Friday.
At the news conference Friday, Mood said, "I am more convinced than ever that no amount of violence can resolve this crisis durably," adding that he is worried about recent bomb blasts. Mood was in Damascus when huge twin blasts killed more than 50 people outside a military intelligence complex in the Syrian capital last week.
He called the bloody incident "a very graphic, very graphic example of the kind of violence that does no good whatsoever" but did not offer further details on who think might have been behind the attack.
But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced Thursday that he thinks that Al Qaeda is behind last week's bombing.
"Again, very alarmingly and surprisingly, a few days ago, there was a huge serious massive terrorist attack," Moon told students attending the annual Model U.N. Conference in New York. "I believe that there must be Al Qaeda behind it. This has created again very serious problems."
Photo: Robert Mood, the head of the U.N. observer team in Syria, speaks during a news conference in Damascus on Friday. Credit: EPA