Arab states continue to disagree over Syria
Dina Ezzat, Sunday 8 Jan 2012
Following much quarrelling Sunday afternoon, Arab League delegates decide to keep their 67-strong observer mission in Syria, acknowledging a 'partial decline' in violence

The maids of honour arrived and so did the groom’s best men. However, they could not enter the Pearl Hall at the Fairmont Towers in Heliopolis reserved for the wedding.

The Arab League meeting, in the very same hall, was dragging on as delegates quibbled over the situation in Syria. The meeting that started at two o’clock in the afternoon was supposed to end by five or so to allow the hotel to rearrange the setting and prepare for the wedding.

However, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi and the foreign ministers of six Arab countries, along with their respective delegations, were still haggling over what to do with Syria and with the Arab League mission there, in theory until 19 January.

Ahmed El-Dabi, the head of the mission who arrived in Syria on 19 December, shared with El-Arabi and the foreign ministers – or their representatives – of Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, Qatar and Egypt his assessment of the situation in Syria and the job conducted by the Arab League mission.

According to sources present in the meeting, the remarks of El-Dabi "which do not amount to a final report yet" indicated some but not full cooperation on the part of the Syrian authorities.

The mandate of the Arab League mission in Syria is to inspect the regime’s efforts in executing a set of commitments in accordance with a protocol set forward by the Arab League. The agreement that Syria signed is part of Arab League efforts to end the violence against demonstrators that have for the past ten months been demanding an end to the ruling regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

This mandate, ministerial meeting sources say, seems to be only half-heartedly taken by the Syrian authorities "but it is certainly not fully disregarded".

The Qatari and Saudi delegations, and to a lesser extent that of Oman, seemed unsatisfied with the level of cooperation thus demonstrated by the Syrian regime and argued that it is better to withdraw the 67-strong observer mission than to comply with what they thought was a phony indication of a reduction of violence against demonstrators.

According to one Arab diplomat, Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim, who headed the meeting, urged for more pressure to be applied to the Syrian regime. Bin Jassim called for UN enforcement of the League’s mission, as the UN Security Council would assemble to discuss developments in Syria at the UN’s headquarters in New York on Tuesday.

Other delegations, the same diplomat said, were suggesting that it might be a better idea to solicit the technical assistance of the UN peace-keeping expertise, while a third group was arguing that the mission should continue its mandate and that any further decisions should await 19 January pull out.

Syrian opposition figures who took part in the meeting, one hour after its inauguration, said that they were not at all satisfied with the continued high levels of bloody anti-protest violence during the presence of the Arab League mission.

They demanded the suspension of the mission pending further cooperation of the Syrian regime or in anticipation of a firmer international stance that might force Assad to step down, in line with France’s demand, or to take steps towards a prompt power transition.

"It is a very tricky situation because Syria is such a tricky country with a diverse ethnic composition and with endless influences on regional stability, especially in Lebanon and Iraq," said an Arab diplomat. He added that no agreement could be expected among the vast majority of the Arab countries on a tougher stance against Assad, “I mean really tougher", before there is an agreement "at least in principal" on how to keep the country together when Assad "would be ultimately forced to go – one way or the other."

Several Arab and Western diplomats say that for Assad it is a matter of when and not if, he will go.

As the meeting was coming to an end, a draft resolution obtained by Ahram Online indicated the intention of the Arab League to keep its mission in Syria for the length of it mandate and to enforce its technical and financial capacity.

According to the draft resolution, the Arab League acknowledged a partial decline in violence in Syria while calling on the Syrian regime to fully end the violence.