The Arab League's Role in the Syrian Civil War

By T M
2014, Vol. 6 No. 07 | pg. 3/4 |

3.2. Assad against the Arab League

When Syria’s Civil War is debated at Brussels’ conferences, the League’s role is largely neglected,100 despite significant LAS efforts, especially during the first months. As EEAS official Pisani emphasizes the League did play a role, but has now been replaced by the UN.101

The spread of demonstrations across Syria in 2011 first prompted Assad to release political prisoners and lift the 48-year emergency rule.102 While the U.S. and EU tightened sanctions the LAS still placed trust in Assad’s pledges of “national dialogue.”103 Newly elected Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi met Assad in July and denounced U.S. President Obama’s insistence on Assad’s lost legitimacy. Whilst the GCC condemned Assad’s actions and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait withdrew their ambassadors in August, al-Arabi attended a second hopeful meeting with Assad on 10 September.104 Analysts call the Secretary-General the “real steering force behind the League’s regional activism”105. To what extent was al-Arabi, thus, successful in driving efforts? A former LAS employee speaks fondly of al-Arabi, who replaced an aging Moussa, for being active, issuing strong and consistent statements, and meeting with civil society and Arab NGOs.106

Al-Arabi growing scepticism in October 2011 led to the dispatch of a mediation mission.107 It urged Assad to end violence, release prisoners, open LAS-monitored dialogue with the opposition and accept an LAS monitoring mission.108 Given the domestic struggles in Egypt and Iraq, GCC countries held considerable political weight in drafting the plan. Plans for a first ever LAS monitoring mission gave rise to guarded optimism109, which quickly faded over lengthy negotiations on the mission’s mandate. This angered the League to the point of suspending Syria on 12 November. Jordan’s King Abdullah even called for Assad resignation.

The late-November Summit was the first ever to impose sanctions against a (suspended) member110, and marked a further departure from the principle of domestic non-interference. Although extensive lists of travel bans, asset freezes and the termination of financial transactions with major Syrian banks were subsequently issued, few have been implemented.111

These developments were accompanied by the formation of organised opposition within Syria.112 Political opposition formed under the larger umbrella of what was to become the Syrian National Coalition. When the monitoring mission was finally accepted by Assad in mid-December113, a long list of complaints emerged: The 165-person mission lacked competence and funding, was attacked and blackmailed, and its itinerary was controlled by the regime. Furthermore, the head of mission, who led the Sudanese military intelligence during the Darfur genocide, appears to have been selected by the Assad regime.114 In frustration over the “farce”115, first Saudi Arabia, then the remainder of GCC-members and finally Jordan withdrew leading to the mission’s breakdown in late-January 2012.

This was one key moment of LAS resignation and transfer to the UN. LAS actions were replaced by joint LAS-UN actions, notably the tasking of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as Joint Special Envoy in February.116 Non-permanent UNSC member Morocco, based on a LAS proposal117, called for negotiated cessation of violence and Assad to step down in favour of his vice-president and a national unity government. The proposal approved by the USA, the EU and Turkey, was vetoed by Russia and China.118 Another LAS peace plan, promoted by Annan and eventually adopted as UNSC statement and accepted by Assad119, resulted in a short ceasefire in April, but did not prevent a subsequent surge of killings from the 9,000 killed until then. Russia supported this UNSC statement since military intervention was ruled out and no “unilateral demands” or ultimatums were introduced.

This period witnessed open calls for armed intervention. Qatar’s emir called for LAS-UN peacekeeping forces, and Saudi Arabia demanded the arming of the opposition, while Annan cautioned that “further militarisation will make the situation worse".120 Dispute about the March 2013 LAS Summit’s endorsement of military aid for rebel groups121 continues until today. To further complicate matters, Qatar and Saudi Arabia support different opposition factions with weapon deliveries to increase their influence.122 The power-struggle between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is hindering peace prospects, and creates infighting. Their only agreement is that Assad must go. To promote an inclusive, truly-Syrian opposition, such confrontational support must end.

Syria’s Summit seat, granted to the opposition in March 2013123, was left empty at the March 2014 Summit. Iran strongly criticised the LAS for offering al-Khatib124 the Syrian seat, emphasizing that such interventions disqualify the League from mediation125 and rules out any imposed removal of Assad.126 With the Civil War in its fourth year, Jarba’s opposition coalition resides largely in exile and appears disconnected from the Syrian population.127

The League’s Secretariat and Secretary-General al-Arabi, who met with human right defenders in Cairo, appear determined to achieve a political solution.128 However, Al-Arabi’s calls for impartial international investigations into war crimes are blocked by internal disagreement and continued UNSC vetoes from China and Russia, preventing a stronger LAS role. Internal lack of unity and “destructive [external] competition” led to the frustrated resignation of Special Envoy Annan in August 2012 over a “mission impossible”129, and rumours have surfaced about the possible resignation of his successor Lakhdar Brahimi.130 Rifts between Arab countries add to this. The March 2014 Summit failed, merely issuing a “pledge to work decisively to put a final end to [internal] divisions.” Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar in February over its support for the MB and ‘interference in Egypt’s sovereignty’, sending the country into isolation.131

January’s Geneva-II talks, based on the June 2012 Geneva Communiqué, were prematurely aborted without progress. The Syrian National Coalition appears to be a pawn in external power-struggles.132 The body’s composition is highly political as evident in the drive for Saudi control by expanding the Coalition to 120 seats and electing Saudi-aligned Jarba.133 More radical militias, including al-Tawhid and al-Nusra, refused to join the Coalition, calling it a Western conspiracy.134 Former opposition head al-Khatib described meetings of the ‘Higher Military Council’ without participation of the Coalition, but hosting representatives of neighbouring countries.135 The internal divides and the UN’s invitation of Iran to attend Geneva-II, led to the temporary withdrawal of the largest opposition group SNC.136 Al-Arabi emphasized in March that the Coalition must take further steps to establish its institutions before again being considered for the Syrian Summit seat.137

Crimes against humanity by both sides of the conflict, including systematic starvation and the use of chemical weapons, as a precursor to the ongoing evacuation of Homs under UN supervision, continue unpunished.138 To ease human suffering, this February’s UNSCR2139 calls on “all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities” to allow for humanitarian assistance and the evacuation of civilians by agreeing on localised ceasefires.139 At the time of writing, a ceasefire in Homs allowed for the evacuation of approximately 2,000 fighters to other rebel-held areas, and gave regime forces control over the centre of the country’s third-largest city, once called the “capital of the revolution.”140 These first concrete steps hold some promise, but the resolution should be judged upon the UN Secretary-General’s monthly report to the UNSC and upon responses for eventual violations.141

3.3. Syria’s future: A path too dark for optimism?

Syria will be remembered in history as another instance, as Rwanda and Srebenica, where the international community was unable to prevent immense human suffering. Death toll statistics and abstract discussions of the use of chemical weapons142 and ‘terrorism’ obscure the daily realities of Syrians, with hospitals being attacked and basic supplies lacking. Although the regime is using combat helicopters, air bombardments and indiscriminate barrel bomb attacks against its population, military victory is improbable with Syria’s largest city Aleppo, the Kurdish north and various Damascus suburbs firmly in rebel hands.143

Following frustrations about seeming indifference to Syrian suffering and sole concern for national objectives, “[m]ost Syrians have ceased to care about international conferences.”144 The LAS’ role held promise at first, but has digressed into internal disputes. Al-Khatib, who had repeatedly visited fighters inside the country as Coalition head, described his role as “only a means to sign some papers.” Brahimi applauded al-Khatib’s bold – yet unsuccessful – attempts at bypassing the Coalition hierarchy to establish non-existent direct negotiations with Assad.145 While Syria’s signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention in October 2013 was widely welcomed, al-Khatib did not consider this a main concern, with unchecked bloodshed continuing. Assad’s announced elections, ridicule the principles of democracy.146

The war’s continuation entails multiple serious threats. Domestically, the fear of Syria’s break-up and loss of its multi-ethnic identity is real. Preventing further sectarian division, feared by all147, must be the LAS’ key objective.148 Excessive violence by the regime and non-state actors, such as ISIS149, terrorises a population already traumatized by the loss of cultural heritage.150 The population rejects ISIS’ and Al-Nusra’s terror, and their infighting is disqualifying them from future solutions. Egypt’s transition and its treatment of the MB play a central role. If Egypt continues to brutally suppress and execute MB leaders, it will only strengthen violent opposition. If, on the other hand, it exercises constraint and administers justice, it can regain its authoritative voice in LAS matters. The Coalition’s hijacking by regional and international actors has “helped complicate the problem”151, leading analysts to describe the LAS’ role as “not so much a result of the ‘Tahrir spirit’ as of the hardheaded, geopolitical calculations.”152 The LAS must create internal cohesion if it does not want to go down in history as an association of corrupt and disconnected authoritarians, or worse henchman of the West. This is further substantiated if the Saudi fear of Iran’s rise holds true.153

Externally, spillover is feared by all neighbours, and section ‎3.1 bears sufficient evidence for the seriousness of this threat, especially for Lebanon. If the LAS respects its own calls for a Syrian-led transition, Secretary-General al-Arabi must offer his good offices to understand the interests of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and settle their dispute. Any future agreement with Russia and Iran requires agreement amongst Arab leaders. This would not further the objective of giving military superiority to either side, but of creating a situation ripe for dialogue.154 A recent analysis claims that Saudi Arabia and Iran hold the means of achieving an enduring ceasefire.155 Members of the League such as Oman, Kuwait and Qatar, maintaining fairly good relations, should be tasked to ensure Iran’s inclusion in international efforts.156 On this basis, the LAS can then provide a forum for common debate of Syria’s future between the opposition and the regime.

As evidenced, the Secretary-General, given the right to speak as the Arab representative, can inform the UNSC. Pragmatism must be the priority in agreeing on ceasefires and providing humanitarian aid. “[H]umanitarian initiative[s] without a single political or military stipulation”157 do not exist since all provision of aid reaches the strongest military forces, unless accompanied by political measures.158 Conversations with the Coalition and the UNSC should, therefore, include possibilities of LAS peacekeeping forces to secure humanitarian corridors and of a renewed observer mission with independent Arab human rights observers. Previous actions should inform possible strategies. Military intervention must be founded on full UNSC legitimisation. Such rhetoric is strong with all parties159, but it is an open secret that military intervention is on-going.160 The proliferation of fighting expertise and weapons post-conflict must urgently be addressed.

Without Arab laws, degrees or binding resolutions, the state of pan-Arabism is disappointing, and the LAS risks forfeiting citizen’s trust.161 We are seeing a downward spiral of action-reaction processes, hardening positions and decreasing the potential for self-help.162

Frustrations over an understaffed Secretariat and lack of common political will, made Europeans dismiss the League as part of the solution, but Arab diplomats in Cairo are often their member state’s best and could be leveraged.163 To address conflicts before their escalation, the LAS must build on Secretary-General Moussa’s reforms, ensure resilient long-term relationships through trust-building measures and end bilateral bargaining and short-sighted unilateral actions. The lessons from Syria must not be forgotten, but harnessed to consolidate the LAS’ conflict management and prevention mechanisms. The League must reach agreement on its future organisation, addressing criticism of a lack of decision-making mechanisms, of economic components and of overall “outdated objectives”164.

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