x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Arab League states' views on Syria response far from uniform

To illustrate the dilemma the use of chemical weapons in Syria poses for many governments in the Middle East, there is no better illustration than this week's declaration by the Arab League. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

ABU DHABI // To illustrate the dilemma the use of chemical weapons in Syria poses for many governments in the Middle East, there is no better illustration than this week's declaration by the Arab League.

Meeting in emergency session Cairo on Tuesday, country representatives to the 22-member regional bloc directly accused the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad of full responsibility for the August 21 attack, calling it a "heinous crime."

But after calling on the United Nations Security Council to "take the necessary deterring measures against the perpetrators," the league stopped short of publicly supporting military action against a fellow Arab state.

Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Institution in Doha, said "a measured, muted Arab League response" was expected "because it's the common denominator everyone could agree upon".

The ambivalence evident at the heart of the resolution could now complicate Western efforts to gather support for a punitive strike. The United States, Britain, and France have hinted that they will not necessarily wait for approval from the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed resolutions that went against Mr Al Assad.

If they go around the UN, they may now have to forego explicit Arab support as well.

Despite the passage of the resolution, the views of the bloc's member nations about Syria are far from monolithic.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait pushed for the resolution blaming the Syrian regime for the attack. The Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, speaking later in Jeddah, said that Syria's use of chemical weapons required a "firm and serious" response, adding that Mr Al Assad's government had "lost its Arab identity and is no longer affiliated in any way for the Syrian civilisation".

But Algeria objected to language in the resolution, including wording carried over from recent league resolutions on Syria, supporting the right of member countries to assist Syrians fighting in "self defence". Iraq also abstained from voting on that paragraph, as well as one condemning the Syrian regime for the chemical weapons attack.

Egypt's government, meanwhile, urged countries to wait for the results of an investigation by UN weapons inspectors in Damascus before assigning blame for a chemical attack. Lebanon abstained from voting on the resolution altogether.

These divisions over Syria are not new, but they have widened in recent months.

Syria's Arab neighbours - Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan - are now home to nearly 1.5 million refugees between them, and have been the most resistant to supporting military action against Mr Al Assad, fearing their own security and their economies could be further jeopardized.

Islamic State of Iraq, Al Qaeda's offshoot in Iraq, is fighting with the rebels in Syria, and Baghdad has repeatedly warned about weapons and militants streaming into Iraq from Syria.

Iraq's prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, yesterday ordered the security forces to be on high alert because of the possibility of an international strike on Syria.

"All political and security powers in Baghdad, the provinces and all over Iraq, announce the highest level of alert," Mr Al Maliki said in a weekly televised statement that focused mainly on Syria.

He said the government was taking measures to prevent "dangerous developments which may result from the Syrian crisis and the talk about an expected strike".

Then there is Lebanon, which has seen a string of bombings in recent weeks blamed on rising tensions from Syria. The government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati has sought against a rising backwash of turmoil from Syria to remain officially neutral.

"There will be political and security repercussions on the Lebanese domestic scene if the developments accelerated in the region," said Qassem Hashem, a member of the Lebanese parliament, on Voice of Lebanon radio yesterday.

Despite cautious public positions, analysts said that some Arab states would support - and may even be privately encouraging - a US-led strike.

Abdullah Al Shammri, a former Saudi diplomat, said that Saudi Arabia was unlikely to object to military action.

"It's not a secret that the majority within Saudi society is supporting a strike on Syria: the religious, the liberals, the conservatives, the officials and the non-officials," he said. "The government will not offer any objection."

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries may want to see more than the now expected surgical strikes against Syrian military targets, said Mr Shaikh. The Obama administration has insisted that any military action would not be an attempt at regime change, but instead a deterrent and punitive measure in response to chemical weapons use.

"Some countries may be holding back in offering explicit support because they are not yet convinced there's going to be enough or effective military action," said Mr Shaikh. "There may well be a level of concern and even disappointment that a broader campaign is not being considered, one that would shift the balance of power on the ground in Syria."

UN and Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said yesterday that he welcomed the Arab League resolution's nod to Security Council action, adding that he would continue to push diplomatic efforts aimed at forging a political solution to the crisis.

Mr Brahimi said that international law was "clear" that "military action must be taken after a decision by the Security Council".

* With additional reporting from Reuters