Arab states are worlds apart on Syria as they haggle over whether to keep peace monitors in the country as their month-long mandate expires without a halt to President Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on popular unrest.
Efforts by Syria’s Gulf Arab critics to force an end to the conflict are being blocked by other Arab states closer to Assad, leaving the country facing the risk of protracted fighting whose sectarian dimensions could threaten regional stability.
“There is no serious coherent decision likely, not just at the Arab League but in the U.N. Security Council,” Laleh Khalili, Senior Lecturer in Mideast Politics at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “There is now more of a sense that Syria is rushing headlong into a form of civil war.”
The monitors’ mission expired on Thursday night.
Qatar has proposed sending in soldiers from Arab countries to restore calm but others reject the idea, saying Syria’s government would never agree and they cannot spare any troops anyway, sources at the Arab League said.
Foreign ministers will meet at League headquarters in Cairo on Sunday to decide whether to extend, enlarge or scrap the work of the 165 monitors, or pursue more drastic measures.
Diplomats speak of deadlock at the League, however, with Gulf states that are hostile to Assad impatient to turn up the pressure on him but his sympathizers still believing he can be persuaded to end the violence and enact reforms.
“They are in a big mess,” a source close to the Arab League said. “They are running out of options.”
There is no Western inclination for military intervention in Syria either due to its position straddling fault lines of Middle East conflict and internal strife between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims that echo beyond its borders.
Assad’s alliance with Iran also deters foreign involvement.
The use of force in Syria would require the backing of all the League's members, something seen as a near-impossibility given that at least Iraq and Lebanon, Damascus's neighbors to the east and west, would oppose such a move.
Diplomats say Syria has also made it clear it would break off contacts with neighbors if foreign troops were dispatched, which would scupper attempts by the Arab League's secretary general, Nabil al-Araby, to bring together Assad and his opponents and engineer a political solution.
Syria’s government said on Tuesday it was “astonished” at Qatar’s suggestion to send in troops, which it “absolutely rejected.”
Many Arab leaders, including some of Assad's traditional rivals, may also fear the reaction of their own populations if he were toppled and became another victim of the tide of Arab street uprisings that have unseated the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya over the past year.
“This issue is until now only an idea mooted by the Qatari prince,” a top official in the Arab League told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“The important questions here are: who would send those troops and who will arm them? And would the Arab League agree to act as the initiator of bloodshed between Arab states?”
The first Arab League source said diplomats mulling over the idea had voiced fear that military action could tip the entire region into war if Syria’s ally Iran decided to get involved.
Many are also loath to abandon attempts at a diplomatic solution over concern that it could signal tacit approval for intervention by foreign powers -- although the United Nations Security Council is also divided on what to do about Syria.
“Such an idea (military force) is not realistic given that it was rejected by Syria and other big countries and also with Arab states being busy with their internal affairs,” said the second Arab League official.
Syrian tanks and troops pulled back late on Wednesday from a rebel-held town near Lebanon under a local truce deal and a third Arab League source this could serve as a basis for deploying Arab peacekeepers to Syria.
“The Qatari suggestion is a test balloon to assess the limits of the League's efforts and the extent to which the Syrian government is ready for complete cooperation with the League to end civilian bloodshed,” he said.
Assad’s most critical rivals, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, want tougher action because the monitoring effort has failed to slow the killing. At least three monitors have reported humanitarian suffering taking place in Syria but the mission has been unable to do anything to stop it.
“It is still unclear what the decision of the ministers will be on whether to extend the monitoring mission or scrap it,” said a fourth Arab League source. “All depends on the monitors' report and the discussions of the Arab ministers.”
The report will be presented by the head of the mission, Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi, who was due to arrive in Cairo from Damascus later on Thursday.
In a statement via the Arab League, Dabi said: “The 15 teams of monitors who worked in different places have covered all cities and villages and performed the mission with the utmost level of integrity, objectivity and transparency.”
The ministers are still likely to discuss military action on Sunday, but analysts say it merely shows how they are running out of options. “The idea is on the table at the Arab League, especially as it is now clear to everyone that the monitor mission is not succeeding in ending the violence,” said Egyptian military expert Safwat al-Zayaat.
But he added: “The Arab states have neither the will nor the ability for such a thing at this time.”
For the Arab League to approve sending troops to Syria, he said, Araby’s efforts to foster a dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition must succeed and both must then agree to a peacekeeping force.
But the chance of a political compromise looks ever more distant, given that more than 600 people have been killed since the monitors arrived in late December and rebel army units are posing a mounting challenge to government forces.
Even the anti-Assad camp is divided over the wisdom of armed rebellion to oust him.
Some fear it could strengthen the hand of Arab states that favor a neutral approach, a stance that looked less credible when the government was fighting only unarmed civilians.