x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Peacekeeping plan for Syria needs details

The new Arab League proposal for a Syrian peacekeeping force leaves many practical questions unanswered. But any approach that could stop the killing deserves serious attention.

Once weak and discordant, the League of Arab States has shown considerable unity of purpose in navigating the crisis in Syria. On Sunday, Arab foreign ministers announced support for the Syrian opposition, and promised to approach the United Nations about a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping force.

As we have long argued, inaction in Syria is not an option. By shelling Homs and other cities in recent days, Damascus has brought the semi-offical death toll to at least 7,000 people, although the number of disappearances could mean that there are far more casualties. The Assad regime has indeed used the licence to kill provided by Russia and China's veto at the UN Security Council earlier this month.

So how could a new proposal to the United Nations possibly prevail? Moscow and Beijing have rejected a more modest proposal; there is little reason to hope for a change of sentiment at this juncture. The Arab League, which has taken an uncharacteristically strong stance on Syria, is left with few easy options to force change in the country.

That is not to rule out a "peacekeeping" force from the outset. But there are many questions to be answered. Peacekeeping means boots on the ground; what countries will they come from? Where would they be staged? Would the mandate be self-defence and public protection, or targeting regime forces? There is a distinction between "peacekeeping" and "peacemaking" that needs to be clarified.

Beyond the basic questions about this proposal are more fundamental concerns with the Arab League's commitment to "providing all forms of political and material support" to the Syrian opposition. No doubt political aid is needed, but "material support" might mean weapons. Syria is already torn by violence, and recent bombings are attributed Al Qaeda. That last thing Syria needs is foreign powers pursing their own interests. Allegations that Gulf states are arming the Syrian National Army, if true, risk worsening the bloodshed and the downward spiral in stability.

The next few weeks will be crucial. Arab ministers have proposed a "Friends of Syria" group meeting, possibly in Tunisia, on February 24. Much like contact-group meetings that Nato and world powers held about Libya, this will be an opportunity for states, Arab and non-Arab, to plan pressure on the regime and support for the opposition. We need to know more about how these peacekeepers could potentially keep the peace.