Arab League under Arab Spring fire

Yasser Seddiq, Saturday 21 Jan 2012

With the mandate of its monitoring mission expired, what will the Arab League do now about Syria and the ongoing bloodshed in the country?

Nabil El-Arabi
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Arabi (Photo: AFP)

Despite widespread criticism of the Arab League's observer mission to Syria, its deputy chief of operations, Ali Jarush, told AFP Friday that it was likely to be extended by a month.

The mandate for the observer mission expired Thursday. Arab League foreign ministers are scheduled to meet Sunday to review the mission's final report and decide what to do next.

The head of the mission on the ground, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa Al-Dabi of Sudan, is preparing to report to Arab foreign ministers. "Everything indicates that the observer mission in Syria will be extended by a month," Jarush said in the Egyptian capital.

Human Rights Watch said the observers' presence failed to rein in the Syrian regime's crackdown, with activists reporting 506 civilians killed and another 490 detained since the monitors were first deployed on 26 December.

It urged the regional bloc "to publicly recognise that Syria has not respected the League's plan and work with the (UN) Security Council to increase pressure on the authorities and effectively curtail the use of fire power."

The head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), Burhan Ghaliun, headed to Cairo to lobby Arab ministers to refer the observer mission's findings to the UN Security Council for tough action.

An SNC spokesman told AFP in Cairo that the group is "preparing a counter-report" to the one Al-Dabi is due to submit to the pan-Arab body.

The Arab League is passing through unprecedented times, with the fall of powerful governments and the rise of the voice of the Arab people — a process of grassroots awakening giving birth to a new Arab world.

“During 65 years, six secretary generals followed in succession and albeit the stinging rebuke they earned, they were mere ‘’secretaries’’ with little powers,” wrote columnist Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed in the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

"Furthermore, governments had maintained absolute powers. They (Arab League secretary generals) weren’t allowed to take decisive decisions or contribute to positive dramatic change, or even ward off political or military catastrophes ... their hands were tied."

"Egypt’s former president Mubarak was the one who was administrating the Arab League. Nabil El-Arabi is now administrating the League, and nobody else ... El-Arabi has enough moral and political power to change the situation; something that wasn’t available to his predecessors ... He has two choices: to be faithful to the will of the Arab people, now the Syrians, and represent it, or to resign, an action we hope will not be taken," Al-Rashed added.

The Arab League's effectiveness has been in question for decades. But the real test of the pan-Arab organisation is the Arab Spring. Can the League, always blamed lacking moral force, decisively stand with Arab causes? In a bid to avoid falling with falling regimes, the Arab League took a bold decision when it suspended Libya’s membership in February 2011, which spurred the UN Security Council to approve a no-fly zone and NATO military intervention that resulted in Muammar Gaddafi being removed from power.

Now the issue is Syria. The 165-member observer mission was sent to monitor implementation of an Arab League roadmap for conflict resolution in the country. The Arab plan required Syria to halt its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, withdraw its military from Syrian cities, free detainees and open channels of political dialogue. Nothing happened, putting the Arab League back in focus. Some Syrian opposition currents struck out in subsequent criticism, alleging that the Arab League aimed to give the Syrian regime further time to quell the 10-month old uprising in the country. 

Such allegations will doubtless be revisited again Sunday. "Continuing the mission of the observers in Syria, unless it is in great numbers, will give the regime more time to deal with the Syrian revolution," said Rami Abdulrahman, of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

But what can Arab League do to halt a crackdown that has claimed more than 5,000 lives over 10 months? Will Sunday’s meeting bring new hope to the people of Syria, or will the real decisions be deferred, and Bashar Al-Assad gain more breathing space in his struggle to cling to power?

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