With observers on the ground in Syrian cities, the Arab League conceded at the beginning of 2012 that the monitors had, according to the Wall Street Journal, “failed to halt the lethal violence” in Syria. Nabil Al Arabi, the organization’s chair, acknowledged that snipers persisted in major cities, but that the allegiance of the shooters had not been ascertained. Such cautiousness was itself likely a contributor to what the Journal refers to as “pitfalls of the organization’s self-reinvention as a regional diplomatic playmaker.” Criticism had been mounting that the “monitoring mission has done little to resolve a conflict that the United Nations [estimated at the time had] taken more than 5,000 mostly civilian lives. Perhaps this might be an indication of the snipers’ allegiance.
As of the Journal’s report on January 3, 2012, 390 people had been killed in Syria since the observers arrived on December 29th—which is less than a week before the report. The observers were tasked with monitoring Assad’s compliance with his promise to pull security forces from the city streets, release political prisoners, and allow foreign journalists and human rights workers to enter Syria. Unless the protesters were shooting on themselves, the gun-shots and 390 deaths suggest that Assad was furtively continuing the government’s involvement in the violence.
On January 11, 2012, Anwar Abdel Malik, one of the observers, abruptly resigned because “he felt that the mission was serving the interests of the government rather than trying to end the crackdown on protesters. “The mission was a farce, and the observers have been fooled,” he said. “The regime orchestrated it and fabricated most of what we saw, to stop the Arab League from taking action against the regime.” He added, “The regime isn’t committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people.” A week earlier, the human rights group Avaaz had reported, according to the New York Times, that the group’s “researchers had gathered the names of at least 617 people who had died under torture in government installations since the beginning of the uprising against [Assad].”
On the day that Malik resigned, Assad was at an outdoors rally in Damascus, telling the cheering crowd that he had come to draw energy from it. “I belong to this street,” he said before promising to end the “conspiracy” then underway—as if blatant protests in the cities of Syria were somehow secret and hidden from view. In reaction to how Assad depicted the protests and the extent to which he claimed that the evidence against his government’s atrocities simply did not exist even though it did, we might want to worry a bit more about how much validity we give to the microphone in defining social reality. An official says X, and society takes X as valid, more often than not wholly uncritically as if little fish with mouths wide open, mindlessly swimming in a school without a hint of education.
Given Assad’s rock-hard intransigence, going the route of monitors being led around by his government officials can be reckoned as tantamount to admitting impotence. The response by the League was a marked departure from when the League asked the U.N. Security Council to impose a No Fly Zone over Libya. To be sure, even if the Arab League were to make the request in the case of Syria, the existence of the veto in the Council would likely merely confirm the impotence of the “regional diplomatic playmaker.” So what can be done?
Although not sufficient as a remedy, strengthening the Arab League from being a confederal alliance of largely empty threats to a federal system with teeth on par with the E.U. and U.S. might be good a start. The Journal reports that the failure of the monitors was opening new rifts within the league. The president of the Arab Parliament, a mere advisory body of Arab League diplomats whose decisions are non-binding, recommended that Arabi withdraw the observers. Even though they may have been providing Assad with cover and a tool of delay, Arabi was free to disregard the “parliament’s” advice. Conversely, if the E.U. Parliament, which is composed of elected representatives of the E.U. citizens, passes the law (i.e., not just advisory), the president of the E.U. Commission cannot simply ignore it. As the Arab league stood at the beginning of 2012, relying on the alliance to stop Assad was more than a bit naïve. The Arab League “diplomats” might examine the E.U. in particular for ideas on how the league could become something more than a league, adding the checks and balances that dual sovereignty enables. Were Syria a state in such a union, its basic law could allow a supermajority of elected representatives and state officials in Arab Union bodies to impose a No Fly Zone or do even more militarily.
Of course, the U.S. and the state of Israel would doubtless object to an Arab federal union, but such an entity could in principle be drawn up without the permission of the outside parties. My basic point over all here is that the Arab Spring in 2011 could serve as a springboard for Arab leaders to think about systemic changes that go beyond incremental fixes that don’t really fix anything. According to Salman Shaikh at the Brookings Institution, Arab leaders are “feeling the wishes of their street much more. Whereas perhaps they could have ignored them before, they are hearing now that 85% to 90% of the people are with the protesters.” So, he added, the leaders are “being compelled to act.” The question is perhaps whether their institutions can afford them the ability to do so, or whether the “actions” will continue to be “monitors” and diplomats’ statements.
Click to read comments or post one on the Arab League’s handling of Syria.