Last Updated: Sun Nov 13, 2011 16:14 pm (KSA) 13:14 pm (GMT)

Muna Khan: Is Syria the Arab League’s coming-of-age moment?

The Arab League has always been criticized as being ineffective on important matters but its action on Syria may change the way it is perceived in the region. (File photo)
The Arab League has always been criticized as being ineffective on important matters but its action on Syria may change the way it is perceived in the region. (File photo)

The Arab League is usually derided for being a toothless organization, failing to effectively address issues it has mandated itself to serve and protect. We need not go back too far in our memories to recall what the organization has not done: just look at the Gaza blockade and the League’s inability to redress the issue.

However, the League’s action on Libya, coupled with Saturday’s decision to suspend Syria’s membership, has elicited much surprise.

Could it be that the Arab League is awakening from a deep slumber of inaction and is ready to take the bull (President Bashar al-Assad in this case) by the horn?

Or is it a case of the organization being a puppet to a greater devil, the United States of America of course, and providing them with the opportunity to intervene in Syria, just as it did with Libya when it called for the no-fly zone that led to the NATO airstrikes? This is arguably the most popular theory doing the rounds.

It does, after all, have all the makings of a great conspiracy theory. A military intervention in Syria would in essence cripple Iran, or something like that, because the West hates Iran and so do many of the members of the Arab League and Iran and Syria are friends – so if the League gets together and indirectly paves the way for intervention in Syria, it kills so many birds with one stone.

Except for the fact that this theory doesn’t take into the equation that NATO has said that it has no desire to intervene in Syria. It has said this many times since Libya’s liberation. NATO simply cannot afford an expensive military mission at a time when world economies are going kapoot.

Let us imagine for a moment, even briefly, that the Arab League (yes, yes, league of non-democrats) has chosen this time to band together to arrest the situation in Syria before it turns into a full-blown civil war. Everyone knows that a civil war will have sectarian aspects to it and spill over into the region, with dire consequences for member states, so it makes sense that the Arab League wants to prevent that, and prevent it without resorting to military action.

This is the same ineffectual body that was able to bring Assad to the table to sign the plan on Nov. 2, and when he reneged on it they took the decision to suspend Syria. This seems to indicate that the Arab League has a coherent strategy on what needs to be done next.

Syria is right when it says that the Arab League has violated its charter, but as The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent, Brian Whitaker, wrote in his blog on Sunday, perhaps the League felt it had no choice but to do this to avoid international intervention.

Furthermore, if the Arab League is guilty of violating the charter, Assad is guilty of violating the Nov. 2 peace plan – and of continuing the brutal crackdown, of not allowing the press into Syria and so forth.
The Arab League can ¬– and should – work towards bringing the opposition together so that when Assad leaves (it is now a matter of how and when, not if) a power vacuum can be avoided and some semblance of an authority can take charge.

The Arab League cannot make right all the wrongs of the past, and even of present, as its inaction on Yemen and Bahrain have shown – after all, the uprisings in both these countries began well before Syria. However, it can attempt to arrest the situation in Syria from taking a dangerous turn, and it should be given a few weeks in which to do so. During this time it can bring on board other international actors such Turkey, Russia and China into its fold to show the world that it will no longer allow men like Muammar Qaddafi and Assad to inflict unspeakable crimes on their people.

(The writer is Editor of Al Arabiya English and can be reached at

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