x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Arab League mandate to expire with limited progress

With military intervention in Syria unlikely and countries divided over what to do next, the 'least worst' option may be the best the League can hope for.

Although Arab League monitors have overseen the release of prisoners in Deraa and other cities, they have struggled to fulfil their mandate.
Although Arab League monitors have overseen the release of prisoners in Deraa and other cities, they have struggled to fulfil their mandate.

DAMASCUS // Exactly one month after the Arab League observer mission to Syria arrived in Damascus, its mandate expires today with no clear path out of the deepening crisis yet in sight.

A final report from the monitors, due for completion tomorrow, is expected to say Syria has made limited progress towards meeting some terms of the November 2 peace accord it reluctantly concluded with the League. Some tanks have been pulled out of urban centres; some political prisoners have been freed, and media access has improved.

But the most critical element of the agreement - that the killing stop - has not been implemented. Thousands of detainees remain in the hands of the security services and army units - or heavily armed security detachments - that remain deployed against peaceful protests.

Government forces also face increasing armed resistance from civilians and from soldiers who have defected.

That puts the onus on Arab foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the monitors' findings and decide the next step in trying to solve a dangerous and apparently intractable problem. Room for manoeuvre is limited, with three main options open, each of them flawed.

Given that the presence of monitors has failed to stop the bloodshed. More than 450 protesters have been killed since their work started, according to activists, while the Syrian authorities say scores of security personnel and civilians have been killed in the same period by "terrorists".

The League could simply declare the mission a failure and pull the observers out. It would then have to either wash its hands of involvement in Syria entirely or, much more likely given the stakes involved with such a crucial regional country, try to refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council, although divisions within the League over internationalising the crisis mean such a referral is far from assured.

This UN route has been advocated by the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) and rebel soldiers, and is favoured by many of the protesters who have endured 10 months of a brutal crackdown by the regime.

But the Security Council has been paralysed over Syria. Russia and China are taking a firm line against a western-led campaign to condemn President Bashar Al Assad and take steps to punish his regime.

An Arab League referral would put Moscow under pressure to take a more critical stance against Syria because it has put its full support behind the League's peace plan.

But Russia has shown no signs it is prepared to abandon its ally, or reprimand Mr Al Assad by imposing economic sanctions or end lucrative arms sales to Damascus.

Military intervention of the kind Nato took in Libya, with Arab League consent and a UN mandate, is off the table.

Moscow has said it will block any attempt to take such action while western states - struggling with domestic economic crises and wary of openly confronting Syria and its powerful allies Iran and Hizbollah - have shown no real appetite for another Middle Eastern war.

That means a quick referral to the Security Council may simply end up as another dead end, with the international community impotent and the fate of Syria's uprising stuck in limbo between world power blocs as they struggle for influence over the Middle East.

Such an outcome would do nothing to solve the immediate problem of ending the killing and advancing a transition to democracy in Syria that all parties to the conflict have professed to desire.

The second option is to extend the monitoring programme for another month, and to give it greater resources. The 165 ill-trained observers have struggled to cope with the daunting task facing them, relying on the Syrian authorities for logistics and security.

More monitors could be sent, with better communications, transport and expertise. The UN office for human rights had said it expects to begin training monitors in Cairo next week.

This option is also feasible, with Syria indicating it will accept the monitors' presence for another month.

Advocates of this path, including the opposition National Coordination Committees (NCC), say it will keep pressure focused on the Syrian regime to implement the League accord and that a bolstered monitoring team would be able to build on the modest but, they say, real foundations laid during its difficult opening weeks.

Crucially, the NCC also believes giving the Arab League plan the best chance to succeed - or fail - is the only way to convince Russia, China and even Iran that they must put more pressure on Mr Al Assad to change course.

Only these allies have real leverage over the Syrian leader, the NCC believes, and without a shift in their attitude - which will not come from familiar western grumbling - Mr Al Assad will carry on with the same policies.

Protesters and military defectors in the besieged areas of Homs, Idleb, Deraa and Deir Ezzor will take little comfort from this. They have already said the monitors give cover for an unchecked brutal crackdown and, fighting for their lives, they will not want to see it extended for another month. This option may, therefore, do nothing to stop Syria's slide towards civil war.

The last option is to try to broaden the powers of the monitors and give them an independent security force for protection or even move towards inserting an armed peacekeeping force from regional states. Arab League troops - overwhelmingly Syrian - were ostensibly deployed in this capacity during Lebanon's civil war in the 1970s.

Qatar has proposed sending Arab troops, although without indicating what their role would be, and League chief Nabil El Araby has indicated the idea may be discussed, although no formal proposal has been put forward.

But Syria has made it clear such a move is tantamount to an act of war and, given the splits within the Arab League and the complexity of the regional situation and conditions inside Syria, there is no indication Arab soldiers will ever be sent to fight their way to Damascus.

Since it began in March, the Syrian crisis has deepened. The regime and its opponents are now more polarised than ever and Syria seems further away from, not closer to, a solution.

Arguably, there is no longer a good option.

Perhaps the best the Arab League can hope for is to work out which is the least bad

For now, that may mean with a beefed-up monitoring mission and, barring a miracle that brings it quick and unexpected success, working out what to do in another month - the observers' next and final deadline.