Arab League's indecision is fuelling Assad's belligerence
When lost, continue walking around in circles. That is the motto of the Arab League in dealing with the crisis in Syria. And judging from the wavering in Arab capitals over what to do next with the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, little is likely to soon change.
Sensing the confusion among Arab governments over an Arab League plan to end the Syrian violence, Mr Al Assad counterattacked in a speech on Tuesday, rebuking them for not standing by his government. He hopes to profit from their mood to regain the initiative at home.
When Mr Al Assad accepted the Arab plan, he widened the cracks in Arab ranks over how to resolve his country's problems. The plan calls for a withdrawal of the army from Syrian cities, the release of prisoners, and a dialogue between the regime and opposition, as well as the deployment of Arab monitors to implement the scheme.
Each of these conditions is a minefield. The Syrian army has not withdrawn from cities, with some 400 people estimated to have been killed since the monitors arrived last month. Yet there are too few of them to verify compliance. Some prisoners have been released, but without accurate figures for how many have been detained, and without a mandate for monitors to freely enter detention facilities, it will be impossible to ascertain the actual number. And while the Assad regime says it welcomes dialogue, it wants to choose its interlocutor, and sees talks as a way of splitting the opposition further.
Last November, Arab states seemed more decisive. They suspended Syria's Arab League membership when it refused to sign the protocol formalising the Arab plan. They also imposed sanctions and a travel ban on Syrian officials. The impact was limited, in there being no mechanism compelling Arab League members to enforce sanctions. While they went further than expected, Arab officials said the decisions were necessary to avoid "internationalisation" of the crisis through the United Nations Security Council.
Mr Al Assad's foes now describe the execution of the Arab plan as a fiasco. In a report last Sunday, the monitors hardly dispelled the unease. Killings and arrests have continued, though Arab divisions meant the Arab League could agree only on pursuing the mission for now. The arrival of new monitors is being delayed by Syria, their movement is controlled by the security forces, and Mr Al Assad feels confident.
Arab dynamics are revealing in this regard. Other than Qatar, which has played a vanguard role in opposing the leadership in Damascus, there is a profound disconnect between the Arab regimes and the Syrian opposition, whose minimal demand is Mr Al Assad's removal. That explains the opposition's mistrust of the Arab League, itself a mirror of the Arab consensus - or rather the lack thereof.
The two traditional Arab powerhouses, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, remain deeply ambiguous on Syria. The Egyptian military council is focused on managing its domestic affairs and is avoiding taking risks abroad, despite the potential strategic advantage to Cairo of a breakdown in the Syrian-Iranian alliance. More cynically, the generals, keen to consolidate their authority at home, favour the status quo regionally. They fear that new convulsions, above all Mr Al Assad's fall, would further embolden their Egyptian detractors.
The disposition of the Egyptian military can be read in the actions of the Arab League secretary general, Nabil Al Arabi, an Egyptian who like most of his predecessors is close to the power centres in Cairo. Mr Al Arabi has been indecisive and behind the curve on Syria, and has not used his pulpit to advance his organisation's plan. Instead, he has obtained agreement over lowest common denominators among the Arab states, effectively neutralising the Arab mission.
Saudi Arabia has also been strikingly hazy on Mr Al Assad's repression. The kingdom has condemned the actions of the Syrian regime, but it has also shied away from shaping Arab agreement on events in Syria. Riyadh has played a largely passive role, in contrast to its interventions in Bahrain and Yemen. That could be because the Saudi plate is full and the royal family is going through a transition; perhaps, too, the Saudis prefer a slow corrosion of Syria's regime. That said, the prospect of ensuring that Iran loses a vital ally in the Levant has appeared not to galvanise Saudi decision-makers.
The Saudis' response on Monday to the Arab League monitor's report showed that they still prefer to have it both ways. The council of ministers issued a statement calling on the Syrian government to carry out the Arab plan and protect civilians. Yet it also implicitly supported pursuing the plan, affirming that it has been "partially" implemented - which the opposition rejects.
Other Arab states have also shown no enthusiasm for aggressively applying Arab decisions. Iraq, Algeria, Sudan, Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon have either been openly sympathetic to Mr Al Assad or have gone with the flow. Most of the Gulf states will follow the Saudi lead, which has been to step back. Qatar has stood out as the exception, but in March it relinquishes the rotating presidency of the Arab League to Iraq, which has defended Mr Al Assad.
There is no Arab momentum to side with the Syrian population against their leaders. This risks dangerously alienating the Syrian opposition, leading to radicalisation of the uprising. That may be precisely what Mr Al Assad wants, but it is also what the Arab states claim they want to avert. Syria is now an urgent matter for the UN Security Council, and has been for months. Arab indecision shows why.
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
Updated: January 12, 2012 04:00 AM