A monitoring mission to Syria that marks an unprecedented Arab intervention in a fellow Arab state may have just days to prove to skeptics it can be a credible witness to whether or not President Bashar al-Assad has halted a crackdown on protests.
The monitors, who began touring Syria on Tuesday, are the cornerstone of an Arab peace plan that Damascus must heed if it wants to avoid creating a new context for broader international involvement, Arab diplomats and regional analysts say.
States in the 22-member Arab League who backed action to try to end nine-months of bloodshed in Syria want to prevent the country sliding into a civil war, destabilising a region convulsed by violence and unrest.
Arabs are also keen to avoid a rerun of Libya, where NATO air strikes helped oust long-time leader Muammar Qaddafi, and instead show they can put their own house in order without the assistance or interference of Western powers.
But a soaring death toll as Syria stalled over sending in monitors has encouraged skepticism about whether the League initiative can deliver an end to violence or will instead show the frailties of Arab diplomacy.
“The monitoring mission has a credibility issue now and whether they are able to access areas in the next two or three days will tell us whether they can be in any way effective,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
“There is a healthy dose of skepticism here in terms of what they are going to be able to achieve,” he said.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told Reuters last week that, once in place, monitors could determine in no more than a week whether Syria was adhering to a plan that calls for troops to be withdrawn from residential areas, freeing prisoners and the start of talks with the opposition.
But critics say the monitors may well be hoodwinked by their Syrian hosts, who could clear cities ahead of their arrival before sending troops back in once monitors have gone.
“I am afraid that the monitoring team might unintentionally turn into a false witness,” said Waheed Abdel Maguid, an expert at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, adding he feared the team will blame “violence from both sides.”
Many were surprised by the mission leader, Sudanese General Mustafa al-Dabi. He has experience liaising between Khartoum and peacekeepers in Sudan, but critics question whether he can be a neutral witness given his military background in a country riven by rebellions and frequently accused of rights abuses.
Khartoum says its army has responded to armed rebellions and stuck to international rules of conduct, despite criticism from rights groups and the West over its handling of internal unrest.
“The Arab League doesn’t have anything more to offer. It is dragging its feet, not to defend the Syrian regime but to delay international interference. It is coming sometime,” said al-Ahram’s Abdel Maguid.
Those inside Syria, who have watched the bloodletting mount as the Arab diplomacy has lumbered on and seen the tanks open fire on residential areas, also doubt the monitoring mission will herald a change of tack by Assad’s government.
“We can’t rely on the Arab League. The only one we can turn to is God. We’ve been bearing this for 10 months and they keep giving the government extensions and now finally they brought monitors and then what? More extensions? Until we all die?" said Tamir, a Syrian construction worker, cowering in his basement.
Tamir, who only gave his first name to avoid reprisals, was speaking by telephone in the central Syrian city of Homs, the first stop for monitors that has been bombarded by the army
The League said that, like any international peacekeeping or monitoring operation, it first needed Syria's approval. Officials said the delay was not because it was negotiating terms but rather because it needed Damascus to accept without conditions.
“If it is a stalling tactic, we will all know for sure and certain in concrete terms in a week (from the start of monitoring),” Elaraby said in his Reuters interview last week, adding that reports from the mission would determine “the basis of which any future decision will be taken.”
Though critics may have wanted faster and more determined action to halt the violence, the League initiative is a first and dramatic shift in approach by Arab states that began with Libya and the changes sweeping the region in the “Arab Spring.”
The League has already suspended Syria and announced sweeping economic sanctions that Syria has acknowledged are impacting business and financial transactions. This is tougher action than the League has taken in the past.
For decades, the pan-Arab body founded in 1945 avoided taking any action against a fellow Arab state. Its founding principles did not give it the teeth that, for example, the United Nations and U.N. Security Council has.
Given this unprecedented step, some in Syria’s opposition are ready to give the League’s mission time to prove it can be a neutral witness, although they are clear that they expect the assessment to show the government crackdown has not abated.
“Let’s wait and see what (the mission) will do. I expect it will be able to write a report with many facts because the facts are so clear,” said Moulhem Droubi from the Muslim Brotherhood, part of a broader Syrian opposition grouping.
Based on reports from inside Syria, where foreign and independent media are broadly barred from operating, many analysts expect the monitoring mission to be a prelude to escalating the Syrian file beyond the League.
Qatar, which has led efforts to push Syria to agree to the Arab initiative, warned Damascus this month that the U.N. Security Council might be asked to adopt the Arab plan.
Elaraby said it was keeping the U.N. secretary-general regularly briefed about the plan.
At the Security Council, stern action against Syria may still face resistance from China and Russia, although Moscow pushed Damascus to let in monitors. The West has also shown limited appetite to be dragged into a new Middle East conflict.
But, if Syria fails to pull its troops back, pressure for international action could well mount.
“It is unprecedented for the Arab League to send Arab monitors to an Arab state,” an ambassador to the Cairo-based League told Reuters. “So we must help the monitors perform their work completely so we don't give an opportunity for foreign (non-Arab) intervention.”