x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Arab League monitors risk losing all credibility in Syria

The Arab League's monitors in Syria have started poorly. The days when slaughter can be hidden are over; the observers need all the credibility they can get.

They are too few in number. They are not properly trained for a task of enormous complexity. And we do not even know exactly who they are.

Those are some of the more polite accusations being levelled against the Arab League team monitoring compliance with a peace plan designed to stop Syria descending into civil war.

For many commentators, the whole enterprise is a conspiracy to give the regime of President Bashar Al Assad time and diplomatic support in its fight with the opposition.

The 50-strong mission got off to a poor start when its head, the Sudanese Gen Muhammad Ahmad Al Dabi, declared during a visit to Homs, the stronghold of the opposition, that he had not seen anything "frightening". During their visit, he said, "there was calm and no clashes".

It is perfectly possible that the monitors arrived during a lull in fighting. In fact the Syrian security forces probably pulled their armoured vehicles off the streets of Homs to give the impression that they are reducing the level of violence. But it was unwise of the general to let it appear that he could be duped so easily.

Criticism has focused on Gen Al Dabi's background as a former head of military intelligence under the Sudanese president, Omar Al Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur. Gen Al Dabi is credited with organising the notorious pro-government militia known as the Janjaweed, which was responsible for the worst atrocities in Darfur.

The general does not deny employing "a firm hand" in Darfur, according to authors Julie Flint and Alex De Waal, who have written a history of the conflict. But he says this was to force the tribes to reconcile, they say.

Amnesty International has, not surprisingly, declared that his appointment "seriously calls into question the mission's credibility".

But before dismissing the mission this way, it is worth stepping back to the last major threat to the rule of the Assad family, the 1982 uprising in the city of Hama.

At that time no journalists could get into Hama, and the army was able to flatten the city centre on the heads of the rebels, undisturbed by video cameras. The Syrian government had a near-total monopoly on news. The truth of what happened then is still emerging today, almost 30 years on.

Since the invention of the camera phone, the balance of forces in the media war has been overturned. Even as Gen Al Dabi is reported as saying that all is calm in Homs, satellite TV channels broadcast clips of the monitors in their red vests being hustled to safety as shooting broke out.

The image of the day that sticks in the mind is of the corpse of a five-year boy being laid on the bonnet of one of the monitors' cars, his bloodied little body resting beside the logo of the Arab League.

So if the purpose of the Arab League mission is to whitewash the crimes of the Syrian security forces, it is no longer possible to do that and retain any credibility. The media space is now too open to allow such cosy deals.

It is normal, with more than 5,000 dead, for expectations to be high for an end to the bloodshed, particularly as it is easy to see it spreading to Lebanon, Iraq and beyond. But instant peace was never a realistic outcome for this monitoring mission.

The Syrian government agreed to the monitors because it was worried that Russia, its ally at the United Nations Security Council, was no longer committed to shielding the regime from the threat of international sanctions. Mr Al Assad had to make a concession to Arab and international opinion. But he is not about to step down.

Outside Syria, there is no consensus in the Arab world on how to resolve the crisis. Syria is not Libya, where the task of regime change can be handed over to Nato with no fear of repercussions on neighbouring states.

Demands for humanitarian corridors, made by Burhan Ghalioun, chairman of the Syrian opposition group the Transitional National Council, have not gained international support.

The Nato alliance is not going to intervene. Washington, in an election year, is not going to take the lead at a time when the White House wants to project a message that the era of Middle Eastern entanglements is over. There is no sign that Turkey is ready to take the lead either.

We cannot know at this stage whether the Arab League mission will give the beleaguered Assad regime a diplomatic breathing space.

In the minds of Mr Al Assad's generals, the threat is surely that the Arab League peace plan will give the opposition physical space to operate in the centres of Homs and Hama, from which it will be impossible to eject them.

In any case, the mission is not the end game of the Syrian crisis. The opposition is still divided. There is no sign of senior defections from the government, its security forces or its diplomatic staff.

Two things are clear: the opposition is convinced that Mr Al Assad has to go, and that he, through his unconvincing public performances during this crisis, is living proof that the time of the Arab republican dynasties has passed.

The Arab League should be given time to overcome its faltering start. A year ago, such a statement would have been greeted with derision. But times have changed.

The independent inquiry into Bahrain's suppression of dissent has set a new standard of transparency in public affairs. It is up to the Arab League to build on that.

They need to establish how much truth there is, if any, to the claim by the Syrian government that it is under attack by "armed terrorists". They need to make a serious attempt to establish how members of the Syrian armed forces died. Were they deserters killed by their former comrades in arms?

Only some evidence-based reporting will allow this mission to regain any credibility.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae

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