The Arab League mission in Syria has been nothing short of farcical. It has been characterised by the inherent, tragic flaw of a body of dictatorships calling on another to democratize and cease its own violent oppression of calls for democracy. The mission itself is led by the former Sudanese general, Mohammed al-Dabi, who in fairness to the League, is best placed to recognise the symptoms of a violent state-sponsored crackdown amounting to a massacre, considering he himself served as a General during the massacres in Darfur. Apparently amongst the other candidates considered for leading the mission were Ben Ali wearing a stuck on mustache, Hosni Mubarak’s tracksuit and the corpse of Colonel Gaddaffi propped up by a mattress.
That the monitors were generally well received by Syria’s protesters was solely a sign of the increasing desperation of their plight. As with the league’s previous efforts in Syria, the observer mission has proved to be another false dawn who’s only real effect has been to grant more time to a murderous regime. The idea that the Syrian regime would take seriously the demands of the Arab League is erroneously based upon the perception that the Arab League, whose decisions are not binding upon its own members, is competent or coherent enough to enforce any serious measures. As the Syrian regime continues to label the League’s mission a foreign conspiracy, in real terms it would welcome an extension of the observer mission which in its eyes is preferable to international efforts being passed on to a institution exhibiting signs of actual competence. A statement by the GCC delivered perhaps the most withering criticism of the observer mission through the assertion that the Syrian regime would simply not abide by the Arab League’s resolutions. As long as the League has no powers of enforcement or ability bind its members to decided actions, Syria will swallow whatever pill the League gives it, knowing with almost certainty that it will have no direct effect.
The plight of Syria’s protesters would be better served by the Arab League monitors withdrawing their ill fated presence and initiating serious steps to pass on this ever worsening situation to the U.N.
The complete failure of the monitoring mission to prevent or even decrease the level of violence has prompted increasing and apparently serious considerations of a military path. Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy magazine recently made a comprehensive argument as to why the U.S should not be contemplating a military option in Syria. The majority of his points could and should also apply to the Arab League. A US backed proxy intervention by Qatar would be as unwise, illegitimate and potentially catastrophic as if the US itself were to intervene. In particular, continued and apparently steadfast support from a handful of major powers has meant the Syrian regime has not experienced a rapid, universal decline in international support akin to that of Gaddaffi’s, which ultimately loosened some of the complexities of a military intervention.
Unfortunately there remains the still clearly misguided perception amongst many that the Arab League holds the key to a resolution of the crisis in Syria. Regime change through ‘regional’ efforts has generally been favoured by the U.N and West more generally in the belief that an Arab League led effort would be appear at the very least less illegitimate and be better received in the region, however this has only proved to be partially true.
This method proved somewhat successful in the case of Libya, where co-opting the Arab League in the decision of a no-fly zone provided the West with what it believed to be a sufficient level of legitimacy. However the League’s abject, ongoing failure in Syria is the result of the perceived success of this approach precisely because it was predicated upon the Arab League being a competent and capable institution. Callous double standards regarding regional democratisation telling of both sectarian and imperialistic strategies have proved that the Arab League or those who lead it are no more capable or legitimate than the West or the UN in leading efforts to bring peace and democracy to Syria or the wider region.
Unfit for purpose
The Arab League was for a long time perceived to be a congregation of dictators consumed by self interest, sectarianism and consequently incompetence. However, since the outburst of popular uprisings across the Arab world, it has confirmed this perception as fact. Its unflinchingly hypocritical stance in pursuing selective democratisation has rightfully borne accusations of sectarianism. In Syria where the population is majority Sunni, democratisation is strongly encouraged and supported by the League’s strongest members, yet in Bahrain an uprising amongst a majority Shi’ite population calling for democracy is met by a small scale invasion from Saudi Arabia. This type of self-interested and sectarian geopolitical strategy is generally only labelled ‘imperialism’ when applied to Western governments.
It is important that supporting Syria’s protesters not be allowed to translate into legitimacy for the Arab League. Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the League has ultimately served the purpose of creating an illusory legitimacy for both Western efforts and those of the increasingly powerful oil-rich gulf states. While this strategy may have worked for both in Libya, the state manufactured sectarian make-up of Syria’s political system means the current situation cannot be solved or overcome by a set of dictatorships so strongly defined along sectarian lines.
The West would do well to realise that Russian calls for an Arab League led resolution to the Syrian crisis are something of a bad joke predicated upon Russia’s accurate estimation that the Arab League is as capable and likely to lead efforts towards democratic and peaceful resolutions to regional conflicts as their own president is in bringing democracy to Russia.
Let it be said that no-one was ever let down over-estimating the utter incompetence and irrelevance of this gaggle of powerful gulf countries currently posing as a coherent regional institution.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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