How the Arab League Can Save Syria

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Step one: get its observers out of Syria.

Syria Jan24 P.jpg

Syrian soldiers secure a checkpoint in Homs / Reuters

The Arab League observer mission to Syria--sent under an agreement with the Syrian government to withdraw forces from the cities, release all political prisoners and allow monitors and journalists free movement throughout the country--has utterly failed and should not be extended.

After the initial one-month mandate for the mission expired, Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo Sunday to discuss next steps. Surprisingly, the league--known in the past for its knee-jerk defense of Arab unity at the cost of its people's rights--proposed a plan under which President Bashar al-Assad would transfer power to a deputy and start negotiations with opponents within two weeks. The proposal was predictably rejected outright by the Assad regime as interference in its internal affairs. Unfortunately, the league also agreed, despite Saudi Arabia's withdrawal from the mission in protest of ongoing regime violence in Syria, to extend the mandate for another month and beef up the number of monitors sent to the country. But in the first month of the mission, opposition figures reported that more than seven hundred people have been killed at the hands of the government in continuing clashes throughout the country. Given its failure so far to halt the government crackdown, the league should have rejected any extension of the observer mission and vowed to bring the Syrian crisis before the United Nations Security Council for further sanctions.

Assad recently gave a rambling two-hour speech at Damascus University in which he brazenly denied reality, mocking Syrian protestors as traitors and terrorists doing the bidding of foreign hands and vowing to defeat the "conspiracy" while claiming he had never ordered Syrian security forces to fire upon them. Assad also offered sharp criticism of the Arab League for "failing" the region. In November, the league suspended Syria, a founding member, for its continuing bloody assaults on largely peaceful demonstrators.

As many analysts predicted, it seems increasingly clear that Assad allowed the monitoring mission merely as a means to buy time until he could figure out a way to crush the resistance. The mission has been woefully understaffed and overtly controlled by the Syrian regime since its inception on December 19, and the number of observers never climbed above 165, nowhere near the many hundreds needed to cover all the restive spots in the country. Moreover, the Syrian government did not allow international journalists to accompany the teams and dispatched security escorts to "monitor the monitors." Given the credible reports of opposition figures being killed, beaten or detained (including two Kuwaiti monitors who were attacked near Latakia) while the league's observers have been in country, it is evident that the mission failed to bring about a halt in the violence.

It is now incumbent upon the Arab League to officially terminate the mission and refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council. The league brought much credit to itself last spring when it voted to support international military intervention to protect Libyan civilians, and its suspension of Syria raised hopes that the organization was finally acting in the interests of Arab people rather than an amorphous Arab unity. It should not squander its newly won credibility by continuing the charade of an impotent observer mission.

Any draft resolution introduced by the Arab League in the Security Council must, of course, attract the support of China and, most crucially, Russia. Moscow's tacit or outright backing is key to creating an effective, united international front against Damascus. Without it, Syria is likelier to descend into full-blown civil war, a scenario that all involved would like to avoid.

A previous draft resolution in the Security Council was nixed by Russia, angering the United States, the European Union and others who have called upon Assad to step down and have imposed strong economic sanctions. Even Turkey, a stalwart Syrian ally and trading partner, threw over its "zero problems with neighbors" policy and signed on to the sanctions program. It is past time for Russia, one of Syria's closest allies and the main obstacle to even tougher measures imposed on the Assad government, to see the writing on the wall and join the international effort to isolate and punish the regime.

Russia has extensive interests in Syria: a long-standing military relationship that provides a deepwater naval base in the Mediterranean port town of Tartus, billions of dollars in arms contracts and investments in Syria's infrastructure, energy and tourism industries. For Russia, the alliance with Syria gives Moscow some geostrategic weight in a region where its influence has diminished markedly since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet military advisors in 1972. It is not hard to see why Russia has continued to support Assad even as it encourages him to open talks with the opposition.

But while Russia continues to back and arm its ally, it must also be cognizant that Syria is descending into a civil war--one that Assad and his Alawite-minority supporters are unlikely to win. The Arab League and the Syrian opposition, therefore, should persuade Moscow to change its position. In the end, what matters to Russia is the protection of its interests, not the person of Bashar al-Assad. Arab League member states and the Syrian opposition need to offer Russia reassurances that its interests will be taken into account in any future Syrian government.

The Democracy ReportAs the Syrian crisis bogs down with few solutions on the horizon, a hard-hitting UN Security Council resolution calling for further sanctions and an arms embargo is the next obvious step. While it may seem improbable at the moment that the Arab League can convince Russia to support such a resolution, this has been a year of surprises in the Middle East, and the league is in the best position to make the case to the Kremlin. Regime change in Syria is inevitable. The sooner Russia acquiesces to that reality, the more lives and suffering will be spared.

This article originally appeared at NationalInterest.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Kate Seelye is the vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC and a former NPR correspondent covering the Middle East.

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