« Previous | Main | Next »

Syria: the Arab League's dilemma

Post categories:

Robin Lustig | 10:05 UK time, Friday, 20 January 2012

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Turkey has been Syria’s long-time ally, but is now taking an active role in attempts to get rid of Assad. Ankara is backing Western actions, allegedly providing a base for training Syrian rebels & even discussing a no-fly zone with the US. Why?
    Back in 2002 Turkey, strictly following its newly-designed “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy, was engaged in building strong economic, political, and social ties with neighboring countries. Everything was going to plan until the Arab Spring hit the region.
    Turkey faced a choice: to maintain its policy of engagement with authoritarian Arab leaders, or to take a different path.

  • Comment number 2.

    Syria became the country which felt the full force of Ankara’s u-turn when Turkey came out in support of Syria’s opposition & aligned itself with the country’s enemy – the US. Turkey found itself in the frontline of the Syrian crisis last June when thousands of Syrians poured across its border, fleeing a government crackdown on the town of Jisr-al-Shughour. At the time, the Red Crescent said it was caring for 30,000 refugees in camps just inside Turkish territory.
    Threats of the conflict spilling into Turkey caused Ankara to consider sending troops into Syria to create a buffer zone. In the event, it was not deemed necessary, but the tensions did not help relations between the two neighbors.

  • Comment number 3.

    Turkey claimed that the Syrian crisis could not be resolved through negotiations, that Bashar al-Assad could no longer be trusted, and started to act. Turkey has suspended energy cooperation with Syria and threatened to stop supplying electricity to the country.
    It followed Arab League & announced a raft of punitive measures targeting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, provoking Damascus to suspend its free trade pact with Ankara. As a result, cross border trade ground to a halt; flourishing commercial links between northern Syria & south-eastern Turkey were severed.
    Reports about American and NATO forces training Syrian rebels in the southeastern Turkish city of Hakkari added fuel to the fire.

  • Comment number 4.

    Reports quoted in the Turkish daily Milliyet, former FBI employee Sibil Edmonds has said the bureau started a training program in Turkey back in May. She also mentioned that US was involved in smuggling arms into Syria from Incirlik military base in Turkey in addition to providing financial support for the Syrian rebels.
    Russia’s Kommersant daily also reported in November on operations being managed from Turkish territory.
    Meanwhile, rebel groups that attack government forces have frequently fled retribution by crossing the Turkish border.
    Finally, the most recent move from Turkey – discussions with the US about a no-fly zone over Syria, in what looks suspiciously like a Libya-style scenario. Nikolay Patrushev, head of the Security Council of Russia, said on January 13 that the United States & Turkey – both NATO members – were discussing the possibility of a no-fly zone.
    Back in 2003, Turkey & Syria entered a golden era of bilateral relations, with a free trade agreement, a visa-free regime & several presidential visits. The border areas became especially close – families living on both sides felt they shared a common home. To switch from “a zero-problem policy” with your neighbors to a “problem-creating position,” you need good reason. So why has Turkey u-turned?
    Geographically, politically & religiously, Turkey has always been the crossing point of decidedly-different worlds. Ankara has long harbored ambitions to be the region’s powerful, leading state. But the influence of Iran, Israel & Egypt complicated Turkey’s path to its goal. The Arab Spring has significantly shifted the years-long balance of power in the Middle East. Turkey has significantly increased its influence in the Middle East & North Africa. The road Turkey is now following may look iffy, but no matter how dangerous its choice may be, there seems to be no way back.
    Personally, I feel that Turkey came to a fork in the road, & chose wrong path.

  • Comment number 5.

    President Obama voiced support for regime change in Syria on Tuesday as calls for intervention in the Middle Eastern country continued to mount. Following WH talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Obama declared the actions of the Syrian Govt “unacceptable” & reiterated the US demand that President Bashar al-Assad relinquish power.
    Obama praised the Jordanian monarchy for being among the first Arab states to demand Assad’s ouster. As in the US-NATO intervention in Libya, US is attempting to line up various dictatorial regimes close to US imperialism to provide a cover for a Western intervention. Chief among these regimes is Qatar. In an interview on the CBS news program “60 Minutes” over the weekend, Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, declared his support for troops from other Arab states to be sent into Syria, ostensibly to stop the repression.

  • Comment number 6.

    Syria’s foreign ministry said that the country rejects statements of officials of Qatar on sending Arab troops to worsen the crisis… and pave the way for foreign intervention. Qatar played a key role in the US-NATO war for regime change in Libya, first serving as a leading backer of an Arab League resolution supporting foreign intervention on the pretext of setting up a “no-fly zone.” It then took the lead in training & arming the so-called rebels in Libya, while sending large numbers of Qatari troops into the country to lead forces seeking to topple Col. Muammar Gaddafi and coordinate their ground attacks with NATO’s bombing campaign.

  • Comment number 7.

    Unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers” from Libya. Iskenderum is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and US Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers.”

    Turkey appears to be taking the lead in these operations, reportedly providing a base near the border for training Syrian insurgents and discussing with its NATO allies the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over Syrian territory.
    Crisis is taking on the characteristics of a sectarian civil war, pitting elements of the country’s Sunni majority population against the regime and its security forces, which are dominated by the Alawite Shia sect of Assad. In the central city of Homs, the scene of some of the bloodiest clashes, there have been reports of killings and terror used to divide neighborhoods along sectarian lines.

  • Comment number 8.

    The current course in Iraq coupled with the survival of an Alawite regime in Syria would create an Iranian sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. This would represent a fundamental shift in the regional balance of power and probably would redefine Iranian relations with the Arabian Peninsula. This is obviously in Iran's interest. It is not in the interests of the United States. Just as Washington is pushing for regime change in Syria as part of its wider bid to prepare for war against Iran, which it views as an impediment to establishing its hegemony over the oil-rich regions of the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, so Russia and China, which have extensive interests in both Iran and Syria, have strongly opposed. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that Moscow would use its veto if necessary to block any resolution in the United Nations Security Council authorizing the use of force in Syria. China has indicated support for the Russian position.

  • Comment number 9.

    Earlier this month, Russia dispatched an aircraft carrier-led naval battle group to the Syrian port of Tartus in what Moscow described as a gesture of “friendship” between the two countries. Russian officials have also dismissed US protests over a Russian ship’s delivery of arms to Syria, noting that Moscow’s actions—while they may have cut across unilateral US and Western European sanctions—have violated no international agreements.

  • Comment number 10.

    1..9 BluesBerry

    Do you really think that the world is as complex as you paint it to be?

    One is born, one lives and one dies: be one a tyrant or a pauper.

    One of the worst inventions of man is the state. It encourages competition and not cooperation. It encourages rivalry rather than fraternity. It also builds demigods! Religion is the next worst construct of man. But when religion and the state join the consequences are frequently appalling. It is odd that the most religious societies are often the most barbaric. Rather, let me rephrase that; it is not odd at all! Very few religions preach hatred, but so much evil is done in the name of religions, surely at some time this contradiction should trouble the adherents of every religion and their enthusiasts and followers.

    Every human being matters and every human being is in the image of God is a basic tenet of the three religions of the book. Why do their followers so often act contrary to their basic guiding light? In Syria why are the mullahs not counselling reconciliation and fraternity? And if they are why are their followers ignoring them on both sides? Peace is not the council of perfection it is the normal condition! The Middles East is full of puppet states that are so full of bile and hatred for their fellow man on can only despair.

    I ask again where are the arms coming from?

    I also remind the USA that all wars end in PEACE. I feel it is necessary to remind the USA of this at regular intervals.

    I ask again where are the arms coming from and where is the money coming from to pay for these arms?

    The Syrian people will have to live with each other as they have done successfully in the past. The time for talking and listening is never past!

  • Comment number 11.

    In response to # 10 "John_from_Hendon"
    Do you really think that the world is as complex as you paint it to be?
    In fact I believe it is far more complicated...& therefore dangerous.
    I agree one of worst inventions of man is the state. It encourages not just competition, but protectionism, & war. I also agree that religion is the next worst construct of man, & when state shakes hands with religion, the results are usually appalling. It's not religion that the world needs; its spiritualism; the realization that we are all one, & the Golden Rule. Religion is "binding"; it fails to foster independent thought. All religions by being exclusive, promoting differences, are actually contrary to spiritualism, contrary to a loving and merciful God. Why do their followers so often act contrary to the book where all persons are created equal & in the image of God? Because religion is so weak that it must bind. It must have commandments. It must tell you what to think.
    It's not Syria that is the problem; it's not al-Assad. It's the Arab League, acting in conjunction with western powers in their attempt to remove al-Assad for another western puppet, as in Libya. It is the west that is failing to preach reconciliation & peace, & what stops the west is GREED. Who placed the puppet-state leaders into their positions of power in the first place?
    As for the arms, former FBI employee Sibil Edmonds has said the bureau started a training program in Turkey back in May. She also mentioned that US was involved in smuggling arms into Syria from Incirlik Military Base in Turkey in addition to providing financial support for the Syrian rebels. The US cannot stop its imperialism. What would it do with the hundreds of thousands of troops stationed around the globe. Can you imagine the unemployment rate, the insurrection...the rebellion of persons with guns who know how to use them?
    The Syrian people - for the most - part support al-Assad, just as most Libyans supported Gaddafi. The persons causing all this turmoil are external imports, even their Syrian Council is external to Syria.
    Thank-you for your thoughtful response to my comments.

  • Comment number 12.

    Changes in the Arab world are coming slowly..but coming. The Arab league understands that any applications may also apply to themselves and most are hardly democratic in form. Training and arms are good for the arms business but not good for the long term development of a country. No one gives up power, it must be taken. It can be taken in a number of ways. Violence resolves little and only creates a list to be punished when everything ends. One problem is that everything must be put into some context of the desires of the West. Let the individuals countries work it out. It may take longer than the media would like, but this is how things develop. Western governments like credit for what they do but do not like blame. The weak politicians of the West do their posturing with selfish motives and not by what might be a real and significant change. The West is only available to promote business and banking interests..the people are of no interest.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.