By Reinoud Leenders
Those who say that the Arab League initiative on Syria is already dead and buried, as could have been expected from anything generated by this dysfunctional and toothless ‘talk shop’, can and should be proven wrong. True, nothing tangible was achieved after the Arab League on 2 November committed the Syrian regime to withdrawing its military from restive cities, releasing political prisoners and starting a national dialogue on democratic reforms. Instead the violence escalated, with security forces and tanks besieging and killing protestors across the country including in Homs, now declared a “humanitarian disaster area” by the oppositional Local Coordinating Committees of Syria. Indeed, President Bashar al-Assad’s true intentions to accept the initiative deserve to be looked at with great scepticism as it gains him some time, confronts the already divided opposition with the unattractive option to dialogue with his brutal regime, and allows the latter to heap blame for further violence on terrorists, armed insurgents and even the U.S. With the Syrian uprising going into its eight month, and despite all good intentions of the Arab League, the death toll has reached 3,500, according to the UN Commissioner for Human Rights.
Consequently, talk of international military intervention to stop the regime’s atrocities has resumed, while at least some members of the Arab League appear to consider expelling Syria from the organization for not living up to its commitments. In Western capitals efforts are put into designing yet another wave of sanctions, on top of the ones already in place since May this year. The problem is that such proposed measures are at best only generating a sense of moral satisfaction among Syria’s critics, but they are unlikely to do the job. They won’t stop the bloodshed or remove the regime before the killing may reach the apocalyptic proportions of the early 1980s, or even worse. Respectively, after NATO’s Libya intervention there are no enthusiastic candidates to fly sorties over Hama or Homs while Russia and China are there to kill the idea if there were. Losing Arab League membership, given the organization’s dismal record, although resented, won’t cause the regime to lose much sleep. More sanctions may only have an effect in the long run, indeed when the revolutionary momentum is dead or a protracted insurgency may have made any dreams of a democratic transition for the country all but irrelevant.
So what will Arab league delegates at their scheduled meeting for coming Saturday, 12 November, possibly discuss? If it is going to be business as usual, the Qataris, who called for the meeting, will add their voice to the growing chorus of condemnation for the Syrian regime’s insincerity and brutality. Others may privately echo some of the options above, without addressing their futility. The U.S. and Europe, for their part, will feel vindicated in their position, hammered home at every possible occasion, that the Syrian regime simply has to go. But the Cairo meeting doesn’t have to go into history as yet another spasm of obsolete Arab unity or, for that matter, as another marker of marking the international community’s selective record on the ‘responsibility to protect’. This, however, would require the Arab League, the U.S. and Europe to change gear now.
Let’s call the Syrian regime’s bluff and bring the Arab League initiative to the UN Security Council. Yes, the same Security Council that thus far failed to agree on any initiative or words of significance pertaining to the Syrian crisis thanks mainly to Russian and Chinese obstructionism. Here the Arab League’s chief Nabil al-Arabi should politely but firmly express his organization’s concern that ‘the parties involved unfortunately cannot agree on an effective mechanism to verify compliance’. The US and Europe then could tell the Russians and the Chinese: ‘This is what your friends in Damascus and the Arabs agreed on, so let’s take this seriously, and let’s see what the UN can do to add its authority and assistance to this fully Arab initiative. Besides, haven’t you both also been recently calling on the Syrian government to initiate and expedite serious reforms? In fact, let’s improve and bolster the Arab League initiative, firmly remaining within its spirit, not in the least by explicitly recognizing the right to peaceful demonstrations and include effective (Arab) monitoring mechanisms.’ Nodding to Syrian regime concerns, a cessation of violence would also have to apply to army defectors loosely gathered in the Free Syrian Army, which two days after the Arab League initiative announced it would intensify its attacks in response to relentless regime violence. This package, then, would have to be voted on within the Security Council as the Arab League-endorsed and -led UN answer to the Syrian crisis. To the Syrian regime, always insisting on its ‘exceptionalism’, it will be a clear signal that Syria will be no second Libya, and that it is a partner in a solution, not a pariah on its way out. That, of course, will trouble the opposition. But while Syrian protestors’ calls for international intervention, vaguely defined or understood, have grown louder, time has come to acknowledge that there isn’t going to be much more on offer for them in this respect. Even if this joint Arab League – UN effort will fail, the Syrian regime’s ties with China and Russia to have greatly suffered as a result. That would leave the regime in an even more uncomfortable situation of splendid isolation, only left with Iran.
Reinoud Leenders is assistant professor in International Relations at the University of Amsterdam and co-editor (with Steven Heydemann) of Comparing Authoritarianisms: Reconfiguring Power and Regime Resilience in Syria and Iran, (Forthcoming).