What next for Arab action on Syria?

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 15 Jan 2012

While Western powers consider pressing for tougher economic sanctions, Arab states remain unable to offer a concerted and united response to Syria's ongoing deadly clampdown against pro-democracy demonstrators

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. (Photo: Reuters)

Arab diplomatic quarters and many in the circles of the Syrian opposition were taken aback by statements made yesterday by the emir of Qatar suggesting he would endorse the mobilisation of Arab troops to help resolve 10 months of violent conflict in Syria between the regime and demonstrators calling for reforms. 

Diplomats in Arab capitals and officials at the Arab League told Ahram Online Saturday that the remarks of the Qatari ruler, whose country had been a close ally of the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, were not pre-discussed. "We are not at all willing to send any troops to Syria or to any other Arab country; for us this is not something we would consider," said an Egyptian diplomat who asked that his name be withheld.

According to an Arab official, "The brothers in Qatar must know very well that this is not something that Arab countries would agree to, unless maybe he is thinking of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ... that is a different story."

Meanwhile, Walid Al-Bunni, a Syrian opposition figure, told Ahram Online, "The proposal is too general for us to examine; there are no details about what the emir of Qatar has in mind." Al-Bunni added that if the proposal is accepted by Arab countries and if the presence of such troops in Syria would "put an end to the brutal killing of Syrian citizens at the hands of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad," it might be a step forward.

In theory, the proposal made by the emir echoed a statement that his prime minister and foreign minister, Hamed Ben Jassim, made in Cairo a week ago when he said, following an Arab League meeting on Syria, "The time has come to consider the composition of an Arab (peacekeeping) force."

According to Al-Bunni, the Qatari proposal could be perceived as "an attempt to keep the Syrian crisis within the confines of Arab management." Al-Bunni, like other Syrian opposition figures (those in exile and those in Syria), says it is preferable that the Syrian crisis be handled under the Arab umbrella if possible.

However, Al-Bunni is sceptical over the chances of keeping the management of the Syrian crisis within the Arab sphere. "The Syrian regime is simply shrugging Arab calls for it to end the violence against demonstrators," he said.

On Saturday 21 January, an Arab League meeting is scheduled to convene in Cairo to examine the performance of a monitoring mission it sent to Syria for four weeks to ascertain the commitment of the Syrian regime to ending violence against demonstrators, to releasing political prisoners and commencing political reforms. On Sunday, a tentative assessment given by the head of the Arab League mission in Syria before a limited Arab ministerial meeting in Cairo indicated that the decline in the volume of violence has been small. 

The head of the mission — a controversial Sudanese army general whose name is associated by international human rights organsations with massacres committed in Darfur — is not likely to change that assessment this coming Saturday.

"Unfortunately, the Syrian authorities have not cooperated much. We were really working and hoping to avert harsher international economic sanctions against Syria, or worse," said an Arab League official. 

Saturday’s report will make mention of attacks on some members of the monitoring mission and refer as well to the resignations of other team members during their tour of Syria. These incidents, say Arab League officials and Arab diplomats, would not help the case of proponents, within the Arab organisation, of an extension of the mission past 19 January, the date the mandate expires.

"I don’t see what the extension would do. And I don’t see how the technical enforcement of the Arab League team would help end the crimes committed by the Syrian regime against its people," said Al-Bunni. The Syrian opposition figure added that to keep the monitoring mission going, its mandate would have to be changed from monitoring the end of violence against demonstrators to "documenting the violence against demonstrators." "Otherwise it is pointless."

Judging by the assessment of informed sources, the proposal of the Qatari emir is unlikely to gain traction. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi’s proposal to extend the mission a further two weeks also looks unpopular.

The real options are elsewhere, according to Arab and Western sources. One option, which has been forwarded by Iraq, is for the GCC to update its initiative that helped broker a deal to peacefully end the rule of Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh and to offer him immunity in return for a power transition.

It is not clear whether the Syrian regime — and the minority ruling Alawite especially — would agree to such a plan.

Other options include tougher economic sanctions by some Western countries against Syria. "It is unlikely at this point that (concerned) Western countries would be able to convince Russia and China to agree to harsh economic sanctions – in the form of a UN Security Council resolution – against their strongest, and perhaps only, ally left in the region, Assad,” said one Arab official.

Another proposal up for international discussion, which has been carefully floated by Turkey, would see the creation of a demilitarised zone on Syria’s borders: to help provide a safe haven for civilians who wish to escape the violence.

The Syrian opposition is divided on its support for the various initiatives being raised in diplomatic circles. Some, especially those in exile, are in favour of firm and tough intervention aimed at crippling the regime swiftly. Others, particularly those based in Syria, are concerned that an abrupt elimination of the regime would open the door to ethnic confrontation in a country of disparate ethnic groups that have for close to half a century been ruled by a powerful minority. The lack of concurrence among the many opposition factions has affected the discourse of the international community, namely a hesitance to act forcefully against Damascus.

"We could eventually come to a joint vision on what needs to be done, but this is something that is going to take time," Al-Bunni said.

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