x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Arab League's indecision in Syria is a chronic condition

Words are about all the Arab League has to achieve its aims in Syria. The continuing upheavals in the Arab world have crippled its effectiveness, never great in the first place.

It showed the lack of esteem that Syria's President Bashar Al Assad has for the Arab League that he initially postponed the visit of the body's secretary general, Nabil El Arabi, to Damascus before the two men met last Saturday. And the Arab League's dwindling confidence in itself was revealed in the initiative Mr El Arabi brought with him that remains wrapped in ambiguity.

This is hardly surprising. For months the Arab League was silent about events in Syria, even as the death toll was rising. Nor have Arab governments been duped by the official line of the Syrian regime that what is occurring is an insurgency by armed groups. Several weeks ago, in a move condemned by Damascus since it implicitly cast doubt on its depiction of the crisis, the Arab League issued a statement calling for an end to the bloodshed in Syria.

Arab ambivalence was again on display after the Assad-Arabi meeting. The secretary general declared that the Arab League had proposed to take a prominent role in national reconciliation talks between the government and the opposition. This bolstered Mr Al Assad's purported endeavour to initiate internal dialogue. However, it also placed the opposition on the same level as the regime, while edging the Arab states into a process that Mr Al Assad wants to control alone.

Mr El Arabi also took the Syrian regime's side by expressing the Arab League's rejection of "outside intervention" in Syrian affairs. However, upon returning to Cairo, the secretary general issued a strong statement saying that he had transmitted the League's desire that "immediate steps" be taken to end the violence - a demand that Arab foreign ministers reiterated on Tuesday - and for "guarantees [allowing] a transfer that will achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people for change and reform and protection".

For now, words are about all Mr El Arabi has to achieve his aims. The continuing upheavals in the Arab world have crippled the Arab League's effectiveness, never great in the first place. In recent years Arab summits have mainly been bad-tempered talk shops. Major challenges such as the Iraq conflict, the Lebanese crisis, Palestinian-Israeli relations, and the convulsions in Sudan and Somalia, to list only a few, have underscored collective Arab failures.

And yet it hasn't always been sound and fury signifying nothing. In rare moments, Arab states have been able to take far-reaching decisions. For example, in 2002, at an Arab summit in Beirut, Arab heads of state passed what became known as the Arab Peace Initiative - to this day an even-handed foundation for negotiations to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. The initiative was re-endorsed at the 2007 Riyadh summit, after which the Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers travelled to Israel to persuade officials to take the offer seriously. The Israelis never did, a mistake that has only helped exacerbate the country's political isolation internationally.

Much earlier, at the Fez summit of 1982, Arab states had shown a willingness to be conciliatory. Despite a recent war in Lebanon, they endorsed the Fahd Plan at the request of the Reagan administration. The initiative was subsequently surpassed by more ambitious ones, yet it did support United Nations Security Council "guarantees of peace between all states of the region", by which it also meant Israel.

At summits in Riyadh and Cairo in 1976, the Arab states wrestled with the ruinous civil war in Lebanon. The two gatherings, held at an interval of almost two weeks, mandated the deployment of an Arab Deterrence Force to put an end to the Lebanese fighting. In the short term this curtailed the violence, even if the ADF soon became a cover for Syrian hegemony, laying the groundwork for new hostilities.

The Arab League's influence has always been a function of what is known in regional jargon as the "the politics of Arab axes" - the ebb and flow of rivalry between the region's major states and their allies. At the same time, the organisation's secretariat has been a defining instrument of Egyptian foreign policy - of the League's seven secretary generals, only one, Chedli Klibi, was not Egyptian. At the end of the Cold War, the Arab League was shaped principally by the interaction between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The three states emerged victorious from the 1991 war over Kuwait, their policies in broad harmony with the interests of the United States, the dominant superpower.

As a result, throughout the 1990s and until 9/11 there was relative consensus among the Arab countries. Syria received an Arab green light to rule over Lebanon, and enjoyed Arab approval as it negotiated with Israel. Egypt became the obligatory Arab mediator between Arabs and Israelis, while benefiting from Washington's largesse. And Saudi Arabia felt secure thanks to the American security umbrella protecting the kingdom, the containment of Iraq, Arab-Israeli peace talks and the stability this brought to the Gulf and the Levant.

The comparative tranquillity was swept away by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The invasion, Iran's growing sway in Baghdad and regionally, the aftershocks of Syria's involuntary withdrawal from Lebanon, Tehran's and Damascus' rising leverage over Palestinian affairs through Hamas, America's drawdown in the Middle East, and more undermined the equilibrium. The ensuing divisions had not been overcome when popular revolts this year further shattered the hitherto unshakable pillars of Arab immovability.

Sympathise with Mr El Arabi. If he speaks for Arab unanimity, then expect only whispers. Syria is a predicament, among others, in which the secretary general's margin of manoeuvre is narrow. The Arab League is adrift because so too is the Arab world. But more refreshing, the organisation, customarily a temple of regional stalemate, is now compelled to reinvent itself. Otherwise it risks lasting irrelevance.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle. He tweets @BeirutCalling