How the Arab League Can Save Syria

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.

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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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