Syria: the Arab League's dilemma
Has the month-old Arab League mission to Syria been a dismal failure? Is it time to admit that it has done nothing to protect Syrian civilians, or to pressure President Assad to call a halt to his security forces' crackdown against anti-government protesters?
Facts are hard to come by in Syria, but the UN estimates that some 600 people have been killed in the four weeks since the Arab League observers turned up; the US reckons the rate of killing has actually increased rather than decreased since the mission got under way.
When I was in Cairo last week, I spoke to the Arab League's secretary-general, Nabil el-Araby. He readily admitted that President Assad has flagrantly ignored the agreement he signed with the Arab League -- and he left little doubt that he has made his deep displeasure known in private communications with Damascus.
But he does not accept the claim by some Syrian opposition groups that the mission has done more harm than good. (Nor does he accept that it has become, to use the word favoured by one of his monitors who quit in disgust, a "farce".)
Mr el-Araby says that at the very least, protesters have known that if they come out onto the streets to shout their anti-Assad slogans in the presence of Arab League observers, well, they won't be shot as long as the monitors are watching. What happens after they've gone, of course, may be an entirely different matter.
Think of the Arab League as a mini-EU. It's made up of 22 states (21 now that Syria has been suspended), and they're as different as Kuwait is from Sudan, or Qatar from Egypt. Not one of them enjoys what you might recognise as a truly democratic form of government. (Post-revolution Tunisia is getting close.)
So when it comes to deciding what to do about Syria, it's about as difficult as getting the EU to agree on what to do about the euro. Lebanon, Syria's nervous neighbour, and Iraq, which is close to Syria's main ally, Iran, are both deeply opposed to any firmer action against the country's current rulers. Qatar, at the other extreme, is arguing for Arab military action to end the conflict.
How about referring the whole thing to the UN security council? After all, that's what the Arab League did over Libya, with an urgent request for a no-fly zone to be set up. The request was granted -- and the rest is history.
Never again is the line from Moscow -- and remember, Moscow has a security council veto. In Cairo, Mr el-Araby is in close touch with senior Russian and Chinese diplomats, and he knows better than anyone where their red lines are. So tell him there are demands that he goes back to the security council now and he asks: What's the point, given the known positions of Russia and China?
As long ago as last April, with the Syria protests less than two months old, I wrote: "With no regional pressure for military intervention, and with no Western appetite for any more military adventures, the message for anti-government protesters in Syria seems inescapable: you're on your own."
It may seem remarkable that eight months and several thousand deaths later, the message hasn't changed. But political realities are what they are: and quite apart from anything else, the Russian navy values its warm-water Mediterranean port at Tartous, just as much as the US Fifth Fleet values its home in Bahrain.
In other words, to use an appropriately naval metaphor, neither major power wants to rock the boat where its own strategic interests are at stake.
The likelihood in Syria, then, is that the military stand-off on the ground will be matched by a diplomatic stand-off at the UN. My hunch is that the Arab League will issue a report that's harshly critical of Bashar al-Assad, but will nevertheless agree to extend its observer mission's mandate for another month.
Below the radar, and far from prying eyes, I suspect Western military trainers are hard at work coaching Syrian rebel defectors in camps across the border in Turkey. What the opposition need is to to be able to seize -- and hold -- some sizeable chunks of territory, and to form themselves into something resembling a cohesive political unit along the lines of the National Transitional Council in Libya.
If, over the coming months, the military balance swings the rebels' way on the ground, the diplomatic balance may well follow. But the initiative lies, as it has done all along, with the anti-Assad forces in Syria itself.