Last Updated: Wed Aug 10, 2011 12:16 pm (KSA) 09:16 am (GMT)

Hasan Abu Nimah: Arab League’s passive role towards Syria

Hasan Abu Nimah

The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. The regime does not seem to be prepared to admit yet the loss of the battle against its own people.

It has been almost five months now since the uprising started. All hopes since, that a heavy security crackdown matched by a wavering international attitude and a passive Arab and Arab League reaction would end the unrest, have been gradually fading.

While it sounds inevitable at this stage that the awful handling of the uprising has rendered Syrian regime change the only remaining option for restoring normalcy, real and viable chances to arrive at a compromise have been imprudently missed.

The Syrian uprising initially took many people by surprise. Apart from a number of regional and world powers, which rejoiced at seeing the winds of change blow in the Syrian direction, there were many others who feared the consequences of a sudden change on the Syrian scene who did not. They believed that the Syrian regime stability was convenient for maintaining a desired regional status quo.

But the Syrian authorities have miscalculated and committed serious strategic errors. Instead of recognizing the meaning of the people’s move, they used force to intimidate and suppress; they resorted to tactical maneuvers and political games to let the steam out and accused foreign armed gangs and conspiracies to justify ongoing state security brutal measures.
President Bashar Al Assad, in the meantime, took meager steps to seemingly bring about “political reform”, but only as a very last resort, when every other method and wrong treatment had failed. Every time he acted under pressure, Assad further eroded his authority, a pattern that continued to give the rebellion encouragement and additional thrust, at the expense of the regime’s integrity. Every step he has taken has been seen as unreal, too little too late.

The accumulated offers so far could indeed have made some sense if they had been introduced right at the beginning, in one comprehensive package and in a manner that could have also implied respect, admission of past errors and genuine intent to assume accountability and effect change.
With so much bloodshed, ending with the tragic death of well over 2,000 people, with so much brutality, oppression, destruction, forced migration, suffering, detention, torture and terrorization, it is unlikely that this regime will be able to survive even if it succeeds, as probably it is hoping, to end all protests and to tighten security control over the country. It is simply too late.

In the absence of some kind of Arab or Arab League mediation role, the Syrian bloody impasse is likely to continue and to further escalate. Neither the Assad regime nor the embattled Syrian people seem to be prepared to give up at this advanced stage of the battle. The cost for both sides is too high, with the former desperate not to lose decisively and the latter resolved to win the battle for democracy and freedom after four continuous decades of ruthless dictatorial family rule.

Some credible and authoritative Arab intervention, under such critical circumstances, may still be able to mediate an honorable peaceful resolution to the crisis and to cut down the mounting losses.

The Arab League’s record in handling Arab crises has never been gratifying. The league either opted not to intervene in inter-Arab disputes or tried and failed. There has hardly been any remarkable accomplishment and that is why the role of other regional powers, such as Turkey and Iran, has been more effective in determining the outcome of many Arab issues or disputes.

The Arab League never dared to voluntarily take any position with respect to the two significant Gulf wars, in 1990/1991 and in 2003, because any such intervention would have been biased, bound to antagonize important Arab member states whose financial backing of the Arab organization is vital.

With respect to the so-called Arab Spring, the league’s position has been highly inconsistent.

The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were concluded before the league had the chance to consider any role. Out of his personal ambition, though, and in flagrant contravention of the league’s rules, former secretary general Amr Musa rushed to Cairo Tahrir Square to test the waters and to secure for himself a place with the camping protesters, which could later on help his ambitious candidacy for the next Egyptian presidency.

An Arab-Gulf states initiative, with international support, but without any Arab League involvement, was unsuccessfully tried in Yemen.

Only towards the Libyan crisis did the league seem to be forthcoming, but probably because that did not imply any negative consequences; perhaps even yielded positive ones.

Libya’s participation in Arab League’s regular meetings was suspended when President Muammar Qaddafi decided to suppress by force his people’s revolt. That controversial action, which was not justified by any provisions in the Arab organization’s charter, was followed by a more drastic Arab League decision asking the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone on this North African Arab country to protect civilians from Qaddafi’s onslaught, a decision which paved the way for NATO military strikes on Libya soon after, in March.

If the intention then was to cut the internal confrontation short by speeding up the process of regime collapse, the results have been adverse and very disappointing.

Wars normally cause more loss of life, civilian or otherwise, than they save. Mousa’s subsequent attempt to turn against the very decision he was instrumental in initiating, again in pursuit of popularity, was neither successful nor plausible. As secretary general, he has no authority to reverse member states’ decisions. And how could it have been possible to rescind an Arab League Council of Ministers decision that led to a Security Council resolution that triggered a massive international military intervention in Libya?

This messy handling however was not really the reason behind the league’s hands off approach with respect to Syria. There were other factors.

One of the earliest acts of the new Arab League secretary general, Nabil Al Arabi, was to visit Damascus in mid-July. The visit could not have been interpreted other than a gesture of support for Assad’s staggering regime. Arabi’s announcement while there, in response to a statement by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disparaging Assad, that “no one has the right to say a president of any country has lost his legitimacy”, removed any doubt about the league standing.

With the last few days’ escalations and the huge death toll, neither international nor Arab silence is tenable.

The Security Council has finally managed to overcome divisions by issuing a “presidential statement”, not a resolution as should be, condemning the Syrian government’s violence and demanding that it stop. A chorus of calls followed this international reprimand from the Arab League, and Turkey and a number of other Arab states - which also withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus - demanded that the Syrian government halt its military operations and implement speedy reform.

Such verbal pronouncements mean little, and it is unlikely that Assad will take them seriously either. Halting violence, for him, would be tantamount to surrender.

What could possibly be more effective is a high-level Arab delegation to visit Damascus and negotiate a settlement. Only if there is credible mediation does an end to violence make sense.

Locked in a fierce fight, neither side will be willing to withdraw from the battle theatre. Left on their own, the Syrian people will be the only victim of a desperate regime willing to spare no atrocity for the sake of political survival.

Hasan Abu Nimah is a former Jordanian envoy to Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. This article was first published in The Jordan Times on August 10, 2011

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