The Arab League's Role in the Syrian Civil War

By T M
2014, Vol. 6 No. 07 | pg. 1/4 |

In March 2011 peaceful protests over the arrest and torture of young Syrians, themselves having drawn slogans refering to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia on walls in Syria’s Daraa, led to the killing of six civilians by Syrian police. The protests quickly spread, while the government response grew increasingly cruel. More than three years later, the death toll from Syria’s Civil War has reached over 150,0002 and 6.5 - 7.6 million have become internally displaced (IDPs) according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).3 Together with up to 2.7 million refugees in neighbouring countries, nearly half the population of Syria is currently displaced.4

This report examines the role the Arab League (LAS) has played in achieving political solutions to regional conflicts. It evaluates the constraints posed by the Arab League's structure, its internal power struggles – the ‘Arab Cold War’ – and external interference. It dissects the LAS response to the Syrian Civil War, including Syria’s suspension in November 2011.5 The report builds on statements by diplomatic representatives from Syria and its neighbours at Brussels’ conferences and interviews with Arab and European experts.

Syrian refugee camp, Karkosik Erbil

Syrian refugee camp, Karkosik Erbil - Photo: Flickr/Mustafa Khayat CC-4

2. The Arab quest for independence and unity

The Arab League, with its 22 members and a population of about 350 million, stretches 7,700km from Mauritania in the West to Oman in the East. Its per capita GDP ratio of 1:30 between Yemen and Qatar illustrates the uneven distribution of resources, and, as a result, power.6 Since its inception and specifically after the discovery of oil, internal and external forces have clashed for control over the strategically and economically important Middle East. Syria7, with a population of 21.1 million8, amidst the Silk Route constitutes a central element of the region’s past and present.

2.1. Syria and the Arab League: An intertwined history

Evaluating the LAS’ “renewed relevance”9, this section analyses the events leading to its establishment and subsequent evolution. Specifically, it looks at the countries driving development at different stages, necessary to understand current dynamics.

The LAS was part of a “broad and ambitious political project that could have led … to the creation of a single Arab state in the Middle East.”10 Such pan-Arab initiatives appeared during the 19th century – as ‘Nahda’ or ‘Arab Awakening’ – in reaction to the Ottoman Empire’s domination. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was the key personality in promoting pan-Arabism between 1952-1970.11 Independence from outside interference, unity on the inside and the liberation of Palestine constituted Nasser’s core demands.12 While this may suggest objectives of supranational cooperation, the League Pact emphasizes national sovereignty.13 The Pact rejects violent settlement of disputes, and establishes organisational structures to facilitate the coordination of foreign policies.14

Map of Syria

Originally, the central bodies were the Secretariat15 and the Council16, under an annually rotating presidency, responsible for strengthening relations between members, coordinating cooperation policies while safeguarding independence and sovereignty.17 Council resolutions, taken by majority vote, create no binding obligations and only apply to those voting in favour.18 Permanent specialised committees deal with economic, cultural and political issues.19 Separate ‘Summit Conferences’20 held every one or two years were introduced by Nasser in 1964, and serve as another forum to determine joint policies.21 While the structure holds significant potential, analysts criticise lack of common political will and the Secretariat’s weak staffing, “rendering the institution de-facto powerless.”22

The Secretary-General, appointed by the Council, holds an important role as the Arab world’s representative in negotiations with third countries and advocate for common policies towards the UNSC.23 The Secretary-General offers his good offices, and “most instances in which the League obtained at least a partial success witnessed at least the deployment to the site of the conflict of a mediation mission … often headed by the deputy/assistant Secretary-General … or by the Secretary-General himself.”24

The most important pan-Arab project involved Syria with which Egypt formed the United Arab Republic from 1958-1961.25 To understand the history of modern Syria one has to return to the early 1900s when the Ottoman-backed Sunni majority held power. After Prince Faisal took Damascus in 1918, the country was briefly under Arab leadership. It came under French colonial control based on a Franco-British deal. France applied the divide and rule principle, creating Greater Lebanon alongside a divided State of Syria. Their preference for Alawite security forces empowered a minority of 12%26 of the population leveraging the ‘Nahda’’s weakness of ignoring minorities in their conception of Arab unity.27

Weakened from struggles against the French28, Syria suffered multiple military coups post-1946 independence.29 After the birth of the UAR, Baathist leaders, including Hafez Al-Assad, clandestinely formed the ‘Military Committee’ to challenge Egyptian domination of the national parliament. A military coup in 1961 ended the UAR-union, but saw continued Baathist repression. The “corrective movement,” a Baathist military coup conducted in 1963, first reinstated multi-party rule.30 Four decades of authoritarian rule began in 1970 when Assad staged a bloodless coup. His 1973 Constitution established secular rule with a weak parliament and ultimate authority for the President. The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed.

A combination of internal security services31, repression of the press and state of emergency measures served to repress opponents.32 Strategic concessions to Christians and the Sunni merchant class provided Assad with a loyal core, and key positions were filled with Assad-loyalists, explaining the army’s comparative cohesion until today.33 The outlawed MB remained underground to form the strongest opposition. It was subjected to violence as in 1980 when ‘Emergency Law 49’ put membership under capital punishment and in 1982 when 20,000 soldiers, deployed to quell uprisings in Hama, killed between 15-30,000 within three weeks.34 Such government measures strengthened MB hardliners in internal power-struggles, but received support from parts of the population yearning for stability.35

Assad accompanied internal repression with aspirations of regional dominance over Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians. He gained strength from his tough stance vis-à-vis Israel in the 1973 war, especially after the Israeli-Egyptian peace in 1979. Such struggles for dominance in the Arab world are a central element in understanding current LAS dynamics. Following Hafez al-Assad’s heart attack in 2000, his son Bashar took power. Bashar’s opening speech gave hopes for political reform, which were shattered when he reverted to his father’s authoritarian style after one year. Bashar was to significantly alter regional alliance in favour of Shia Iran and non-state Islamist movements like Hezbollah and Hamas, alienating pro-Western Gulf monarchies.36

2.2. Struggling for Arab League dominance – old and new

Kerr described the “Arab Cold War” as early as 1965.37 This is an important starting point for understanding on-going proxy warfare in Syria involving different regional actors. This subsection and the next look at the details of internal and external power-struggles in the Middle East. Internally, as late Libyan ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi expressed at an Arab League Summit, “we share nothing beyond these halls”; “we are enemies of one another.”38 Many current shortcomings in LAS responses to Syria’s crisis can be linked to internal divisions.

Egypt has traditionally been the leader and remains a “strong symbol.”39 The tradition was only interrupted when Egypt was suspended from the League in response to Al-Sadat’s 1979 peace with Israel.40 This period gave Iraq and Syria significant prominence for standing strong against Israel. Syria became increasingly isolated in mid-2000, when a UN investigation accused it of assassinating Lebanese Prime Minister al-Hariri41, and Assad scorned the Saudi and Jordanian kings and Egypt’s Mubarak as “half men” for blaming Hezbollah for the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.42 Saudi Arabia, home to two of Islam’s most holy sites considers itself the “cradle of Islam”43. Finally, other Gulf monarchies with significant oil incomes play an increasingly important role. Financial means remain important in assuring political support from poorer LAS members, and political alliances are fluid.44 It is not uncommon for rich Gulf States to pay for the travels of fellow Arab diplomats to attend Summit conferences.45

While multiple countries lay claim to Arab leadership, many are struggling with internal challenges: Egypt appears incapacitated by the Revolution and subsequent military coup. Iraq and Libya are still suffering from international military intervention. Lebanon is suffering a renewed rise of sectarian conflict spilling-over from Syria. The Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are at strife with regard to the MB’s role, labelled a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.46 Qatar is suing Egypt for detaining journalists of its media outlet Al-Jazeera.47 The GCC’s formation in 1981 is a result of the Gulf States’ perceived inability to protect against revolutionary Iran and lack of economic cooperation.48 These internal issues have upset relations – and so have external interferences exacerbating the crisis in Syria.

2.3. External cooperation and interference

Direct U.S.-Iran talks in 2013 provoked a multitude of reactions from the region.49 Israel condemned ties with Teheran, famously calling new President Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”50. Traditional U.S. ally Saudi Arabia and non-Arab neighbour Turkey similarly objected rapprochement fearing Iranian attempts at regional hegemony.51 Negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme and participation in Syria peace talks convey Iran’s aspiration “to regain its place in the international community.”52

Iran insists that only Syrians have the right to decide their future and that any external removal of Assad will give rise to infighting and extremism.53 Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Bahrain accuse Iran of inciting sectarian unrest. Iran itself calls sectarianism mere pretext for justifying atrocities.54 Foreign Minister Zarif urged, “[w]e should all work to end violence [which is] a shame for both Sunnis and Shias.”55 Ahmad Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, issued similar statements56, while being strongly opposed to Iran’s military support of Hezbollah fighters and of the Assad regime by supposedly dispatching its revolutionary guard.57 Kuwait, Qatarand Oman maintain amicable ties with Iran, Oman’s ruler being neither Sunni nor Shia but of Islam’s Ibadi sect.58

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