By Arab News
In the eyes of some, the hard work of the Arab League mission to monitor the violence in Syria has been cast into doubt by statement from one of its leaders. After visiting the embattled city of Homs, where maybe over 1,000 protesters are claimed to have been slain, Sudanese Gen. Mustafa Al-Dabi announced that he has seen “nothing frightening.”
His comments brought a storm of protest from Syrian opposition leaders as well as outside observers. The general himself appeared to recognize that he had erred. He issued a further statement saying he needed more time to assess the situation in the city.
And time is indeed what is necessary here. The Arab League mission has a most difficult task. For the protesters — victims of the Syrian regime’s killing machine — there is no doubt about the horrors they have experienced. When they have had the chance to talk to the monitors, they have demanded immediate redress, immediate action.
For their part, the Syrian authorities are going out of their way to impress upon the monitors their own version of events. Their story is that this is an insurgency by armed gangs intent upon setting off a civil war. To an extent there is now evidence to back up this claim. What began as peaceful, unarmed demonstrations has begun to assume the guise of an armed insurrection as deserters from the police and army have turned their guns on their former comrades, in defense of opposition protesters.
Therefore the extent of the pleasure felt by the Syrian government at Gen. Al-Dabi’s statement reflected the despair felt by the opposition. It may also have caused some concern among Arab League members, not because of the apparent conclusion that Al-Dabi was drawing but because at this early stage of his mission, he saw fit to draw any conclusion at all.
The Arab League monitors are not yet fully up to strength but they are now moving on to other areas where violent killings have taken place. They are also very likely to be revisiting Homs, perhaps this time without the intimidating presence of a security detail provided by the Syrian authorities.
What is important here is to remember that the monitors’ mission is only a part of League’s peace plan. This calls for the withdrawal of all armed forces from the streets, the release of all political prisoners and the unfettered access of peace monitors, as well as the Arab and international press, to all parts of the country.
We have seen the release of some 700 detainees, but the opposition claims there are 30,000 more. Many of these are supposed to have been moved to secret camps to stop monitors finding them. Some Syrian military units have been withdrawn, at least temporarily, from the streets although many have allegedly returned after monitors visited the area. The Assad regime has yet to permit the free access of journalists.
To opposition activists desperate for change, these developments may not seem much like progress. Nonetheless, they should be viewed in the wider context of international diplomacy and this novel challenge for the Arab League. So far the League has behaved with considerable skill, combining immense patience with a firmness of purpose. Along with Syria’s key neighbor, Turkey, the League has been able to exert sufficient pressure to oblige the Syrian regime to make, what for it, are considerable concessions.
While Damascus is pressed to continue the release of political detainees, to take more troops off the streets and keep them in their barracks, and to permit the arrival and free movement of journalists, the monitors must press on with their work.
They have a great deal to see and record in circumstances that are already extremely difficult. Few would envy them their job. Yet they will deserve the world’s thanks when they produce an unbiased and objective report of their findings. However, until they have completed their investigations, it will be better if they make no comment.