x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Keep observers in Syria despite their failings

Many see the Arab League mission to Syria as a failure. But recalling the monitors could lead to more bloodshed.

Arab League ministers are set to meet in Cairo tomorrow to assess Damascus's compliance with a peace plan to end violence in Syria. A preliminary report will be presented by the League's observer mission, which was dispatched to Syria two weeks ago.

We don't know what that report will say, but we have an idea. As Syrian opposition groups have pointed out repeatedly, protesters remain jailed and the killing continues. In the eyes of some anti-regime supporters, the credibility of the League's mission is beyond repair and observers should be withdrawn.

Frustration in execution is understandable; this is the first observer mission in the history of the Arab League. But abandoning the monitoring effort now is not only unwise, it is also a recipe for more blood. There is no one else standing between the opposition and the regime.

The League's monitors may not have halted the crackdown but they have kept political pressure on the Assad regime. If they were withdrawn, it is possible that President Bashar Al Assad would take even more repressive action.

That said, the mission has made "some mistakes ", as the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, put it on Wednesday. Appointing a chief observer with his own spotty record on human rights was an invitation for criticism. The League has also failed to adequately identify the team itself. And their moves are closely monitored by the regime as they are required to inform authorities before they visit any city. All these mishaps must be rectified by the ministers in their meeting tomorrow.

The opposition is right to be raise concerns that observers are being manipulated by the Syrian regime. For example, despite some observers confirming the existence of snipers and tanks in residential areas, official statements have denied this.

What happens after the preliminary report is an open question, but most important is managing expectations of what the mission can achieve going forward. The observers' job is simply to observe; it is for others to pressure the regime to halt its bloodshed. Expecting any more will only disappoint.

Better would be to focus on what the mission has achieved: a sense that the world is paying attention. As a testament, more and more protesters are taking to the streets in Homs and Damascus. This type of pressure, from within, has the greatest chance of forcing the Assad regime's hand.