Arab World: Damascus’s theater of farce

One thing is clear after the Arab League observer force’s first week in Syria – it won’t bring an end to the bloodshed in the country.

Arab League observers walking through protest (photo credit: REUTERS/via Reuters Tv/Handout )
Arab League observers walking through protest
(photo credit: REUTERS/via Reuters Tv/Handout )
Since the beginning of last week, a team of 70 observers from Arab countries has been in Syria. Their task is to monitor Syrian compliance with the Arab League Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Assad regime on December 19. The memorandum requires the regime to withdraw its forces and heavy weapons from populated areas, release political prisoners, allow journalists and aid workers to enter the country and commence dialogue with the opposition.
To comply sincerely with any of these requirements would spell suicide for the Syrian regime.
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Syrian acceptance of the MoU and the Arab observers is a transparent effort to gain time. The regime hopes that during the period in which the observers serve to reduce international pressure, the savage violence of the Syrian army and Alawi irregulars can begin to turn back the tide of protest. As a number of regional media outlets have observed, the proper term for the Arab team now inside Syria should be “spectators” rather than observers.
Assad signed the MoU, after months of prevarication, on the advice of his Russian allies. Syria is reliant on the Russians for ensuring that there is no action against them at the UN Security Council.
The Arab League Memorandum provides an agreeably toothless alternative to such action.
Once it is decided upon, it must be given “time to succeed” (or fail), thus negating any possibility of further diplomatic action before the observers submit their report.
The performance of the observers in their first week in the field did not disappoint, from the Syrian regime’s point of view. The delegation is led by former Sudanese Intelligence Minister Mustafa al-Dabi.
Dabi’s main qualification for this position is that he himself narrowly avoided an arrest warrant for charges related to his suspected involvement in the genocide in Darfur.
Dabi’s actions on the ground in Syria were a clumsy and obvious charade. The Syrian Army removed its armor from the besieged city of Homs for a day.
Dabi and his colleagues toured the city, initially accompanied by an officer of the notorious 4th Armored Division.
Dabi reported that he had found nothing “frightening” in Homs and that the overall impression he had gained was “reassuring.”
In the period since the observers entered Syria, 390 people have been killed, including 30 children, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which organize protests.
The obvious impotence and irrelevance of the observer force led to calls for its withdrawal later in the week from the grandly-named Arab Parliament. This Arab League-created advisory body, however, has no power to insist or decide on anything.
In a press conference in Cairo, Egyptian Arab League Secretary- General Nabil Elaraby sought to defend the role of the observers.
This press conference did little to build confidence in the mission.
The shooting and sniping in Syria, Elaraby declared, must end.
He added, however, that the problem in Syria is that it is so hard to know who is shooting at who.
A close statistical analysis of the 6,000 people killed in the course of the Syrian uprising might disabuse Elaraby of this impression.
It is the Syrian regime’s forces that are doing the shooting. Syrian civilians are the ones being shot at. This was so prior to the regime’s commitment to the MoU and the arrival of the observers. It has remained the case subsequently.
The reasons behind the curious spectacle of Arab League nonactivity masquerading as activity vis a vis Syria are to be found in the realm of intra-Arab diplomacy.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which are centrally concerned with facing down Iranian ambitions in the region, want to see the defeat of Assad in the shortest possible time. They are keen to swiftly move on from the Arab League level to the UN Security Council.
This has been reflected in a series of scathing editorials in Saudi media outlets this week, which criticized the performance of the observers.
Influential columnist Tariq al- Homayed, for example, writing in Sharq al-Awsat, said that the current performance of the observers represents a “blatant attempt to save Assad.” He called for Syria to be given three days to comply with the provisions of the Arab Memorandum. If this is not done, Homayed recommended the transfer of the Syrian “file” to the UN Security Council and the subsequent imposition of a no-fly zone and buffer area.
Homayed listed a number of regional states that he would like to see involved in this effort – including Turkey, Morocco, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Libya and Qatar. He notes specifically that the Arab League as an entity need not necessarily be involved.
Other Arab states, however, do not in any way adhere to this view.
Some, such as Lebanon and Iraq, are themselves allied with Syria and Iran and therefore share Assad’s interest in stalling and preventing any coherent action.
Others, including Egypt, do not hold to the Saudi sense of urgency regarding the need to deal a blow to Iran and its regional assets. Rather, they are mainly concerned with preventing the possibility of Western intervention into Syria, at the heart of the Arab world. The Arab League MoU and the subsequent dispatch of the observers reflect this agenda.
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Until now, the net result of this has been the farcical performance of the Arab observers under the command of the redoubtable Ad- Dabi of Darfur. Meanwhile, Assad is continuing to slaughter his civilian population with abandon.
Whatever the outcome of the crisis in Syria, it can be said with certainty that the Arab League will not be the instrument that brings the slaughter to an end.