Arab League approval for US strikes on Syria likely to precede Congress decision

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 1 Sep 2013

Insiders say the Arab League will give its nod for US strikes on Syria while cautioning against the excessive use of force; Iraq and Algeria may express reservations

Arab League
File photo: Arab League nations attend a meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

An Arab League meeting at the ministerial level is scheduled to open this evening at the headquarters of the pan-Arab organisation on Tahrir Square, Cairo.

The regular beginning of the autumn meeting, which convenes in the first week of September, two weeks ahead of the UN General Assembly, is likely to be focused this evening on Syria ahead of expected US strikes on Syrian targets to reprimand the regime of Bashar Al-Assad for having used, according to US claims, chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition. 

A communiqué that is expected to be issued by the pan-Arab organisation would most likely, according to informed sources, reflect the positions of influential Arab Gulf member states who dominate the 22-member state organisation in the wake of the exclusion of Syria and the marginalisation of Egyptian influence due to internal political turmoil. 

“The bottom line is that the Gulf States are supportive of the US strikes; they anticipate it or rather urge it,” said Arab official sources.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that are usually at odds over most Arab matters, agree — each for its own reasons — that the US strikes should proceed, even without sufficient international support.

Both countries, according to informed Arab and Western diplomats, have tried to use their economic leverage to strengthen the chances of a US-led "limited war" on Al-Assad. These efforts have so far been frustrated by the refusal of key European parliaments to endorse US strikes ahead of the presentation of credible evidence — particularly from a UN investigation team — substantiating allegations that Al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, as claimed by top US officials.

A UN team that visited Syria to collect evidence of the alleged chemical weapons attack is still to release its findings, while Moscow, a strong and unwavering ally of Al-Assad, has said the allegations are fabricated, insisting that no UN Security Council resolution would pass authorising the use of force in the absence of concrete and indisputable evidence.

As the Arab League meeting is to open, French President Francois Hollande looks set to face considerable internal resistance over his support for US strikes. Leaders of the French political right on Saturday demanded that Hollande should also seek parliamentary approval before joining an anticipated attack on Syria.

The demand was made after US President Barack Obama made remarks Saturday afternoon where he "delayed" a US decision to use force — outside of UN authorisation — against Syria pending the 9 September return of US Congress from recess. Speculation centres on whether authorisation will be blocked by Republicans, though many feel this is unlikely.

“Today, it seems that the strongest support that Obama could receive comes from the Arab world. If the Arab League issued a supporting statement today, then Obama could take it to Congress and use it to help extract an approval. The same goes for Hollande. But what counts most is Obama,” said a Cairo-based foreign diplomat.

According to Arab League insiders, approval will be offered amid a formulation that warns against the excessive use of force and is coupled with calls for the protection of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The old hand of Saudi Arabian diplomacy, Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, is said to be personally negotiating a resolution that would hold the Al-Assad regime responsible for the current dilemma in having failed the people’s demand for democratic and peaceful change, and for having terrorised the people by using conventional and unconventional arms.

Al-Faisal has reportedly already secured the assent of the vast majority of Arab League member states on the matter. Egypt, whose foreign minister, Nabil Fahmi, said it would not support the use of force outside strict UN Security Council constraints, is unlikely, according to an Egyptian government official, to block the resolution but would insist that it would be phrased within the range of “the international community’s responsibility to stop the present plight of the Syrian people and to reach out to millions of Syrian refugees and displaced individuals.”

Egypt would also demand that the resolution call for a political resolution to the Syrian dilemma.

“We stand firm in demanding a political deal that could end the crisis in Syria and by which all Syrian groups and factions would take part in rebuilding and ruling Syria,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

According to a Cairo-based Western diplomat, the proposed deal, which would likely be picked up after the strikes expected to take place in the second or third week of this month, would be “along the lines of the Yemeni scenario” whereby former president Ali Abdallah Saleh gave up power, following close to two years of demonstrations, authorising a replacement from within his regime that acted to include wide segments of the opposition.

Egypt has been trying to promote this scenario for some time, including during the one-year rule of ousted president Mohamed Morsi who towards the end of his time in office severed relations with Syria.

Neither Cairo nor Damascus have acted to reverse that decision, but it is being overlooked for the most part. Contacts aimed to promote a political settlement are underway.

Syria has expressed appreciation of Egypt's stance against the use of force, even though Egypt did not joined Iraq and Algeria in expressing reservations over an Arab League resolution adopted last week condemning the Syrian regime for the alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people.

Today, Algeria and Iraq are likely to express reservations on any resolution that gives a nod to the use of force by the United States. Despite Egypt urging caution on strikes whose consequences are neither clear nor defined, insiders say it is unlikely that Egypt will oppose or express reservations on any resolution adopted.

Setting the tone for the outcome of the meeting, Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, the foreign minister of Libya, who is to head the Arab foreign ministers meeting, told reporters this morning, following a meeting with Egyptian counterpart Fahmi, that at the end of the day the Syrian regime is to blame for the current situation in Syria.

Obama, with the support of the Arab League, used force under the umbrella of NATO to eliminate Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. France and Qatar were strongly supportive of that operation.

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