Arab Observer Farce

Jerusalem Post, 6/1

Since the beginning of last week, a team of observers from Arab
countries have been in Syria. Their task is to monitor Syrian
compliance with the Arab League Memorandum of Understanding signed by
the Assad regime on December 19th. The Memorandum requires the regime
to withdraw its forces and heavy weapons from populated areas, release
political prisoners, allow journalists and aid workers to enter the
country and commence dialogue with the opposition.

To comply sincerely with any of these requirements would spell suicide
for the Syrian regime. Assad is aware that to permanently concede the
monopoly of force in any area of Syria is to accept the inevitability
that an alternative political and military leadership will begin to
emerge there. He has no intention of allowing this. The observers
are therefore on a mission doomed in advance to failure.

Syrian acceptance of the MoU and the Arab observers is a transparent
effort to gain time. The regime hopes that during the period in which
the observers serve to reduce international pressure, the savage
violence of the Syrian army and Alawi irregulars can begin to turn
back the tide of protest. As a number of regional media outlets have
observed, the proper term for the Arab team now inside Syria should be
‘spectators’, rather than observers.

Assad signed the MoU, after months of prevarication, on the advice of
his Russian allies. Syria is reliant on the Russians for ensuring that
there is no action against them at the UN Security Council. The Arab
League Memorandum provides an agreeably toothless alternative to such
action. Once it is decided upon, it must be given ‘time to succeed’
(or fail), thus negating any possibility of further diplomatic action,
before the observers submit their report.

The performance of the observers in their first week in the field did
not disappoint, from the Syrian regime’s point of view. The
delegation is led by former Sudanese Intelligence Minister Mustafa
al-Dabi. Al-Dabi’s main qualification for this position is that he
himself narrowly avoided an arrest warrant, on charges related to his
suspected involvement in the genocide in Darfur.

Al-Dabi’s actions on the ground in Syria were a clumsy and obvious
charade. The Syrian Army removed its armor from the besieged city of
Homs for a day. Al-Dabi and his colleagues toured the city, initially
accompanied by an officer of the notorious 4th Armored Division.
Al-Dabi then reported that he had found nothing ‘frightening’ in Homs,
and that overall the impression he had gained was ‘reassuring.’

In the period since the observers entered Syria, 390 people have been
killed, including 30 children, according to the Local Coordination
Committees, which organize protests.

The obvious impotence and irrelevance of the observer force led to
calls for its withdrawal later in the week from the grandly-named
‘Arab parliament’. This Arab League-created advisory body, however,
has no power to insist or decide on anything.

In a press conference in Cairo, Egyptian Arab League Secretary-General
Nabil El-Araby sought to defend the role of the observers. This press
conference did little to build confidence in the mission.

The shooting and sniping in Syria, El-Araby declared, must end. He
added, however, that the problem in Syria is that it is so hard to
know who is shooting at who.

A close statistical analysis of the 6000 people killed in the course
of the Syrian uprising might disabuse Mr El-Araby of this impression.
It is the Syrian regime’s forces who are doing the shooting. Syrian
civilians are the ones being shot at. This was so prior to the
regime’s commitment to the MoU and the arrival of the observers. It
has remained the case subsequently.

The reasons behind the curious spectacle of Arab League non-activity
masquerading as activity vis a vis Syria are to be found in the realm
of intra-Arab diplomacy.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which are centrally concerned with facing
down Iranian ambitions in the region, want to see the defeat of Assad
in the shortest possible time. They are keen to swiftly move on from
the Arab League level to the UN Security Council.

This has been reflected in a series of scathing editorials in Saudi
media outlets this week, criticizing the performance of the observers.
Influential columnist Tariq Al Homayed, for example, writing in Sharq
al-Awsat, said that the current performance of the observers
represents a ‘blatant attempt to save Assad.’ He called for Syria to
be given three days to comply with the provisions of the Arab
Memorandum. If this is not done, Al-Homayed recommended the transfer
of the Syrian ‘file’ to the UN Security Council, and the subsequent
imposition of a no-fly zone and buffer area.

Al-Homayed listed a number of regional states who he would like to see
involved in this effort – including Turkey, Morocco, Kuwait, UAE,
Libya and Qatar. He notes specifically that the Arab League as an
entity need not necessarily be involved.

Other Arab states, however, do not in any way adhere to this view.
Some, such as Lebanon and Iraq, are themselves allied with Syria and
Iran, and therefore share Assad’s interesting in stalling and
preventing any coherent action. Others, including Egypt, do not hold
to the Saudi sense of urgency regarding the need to deal a blow to
Iran and its regional assets. Rather, they are mainly concerned to
prevent the possibility of western intervention into Syria, at the
heart of the Arab world. The Arab League Memorandum of Understanding
and the subsequent dispatch of the observers reflect this agenda.

Until now, the net result of this has been the farcical performance of
the Arab observers, under the command of the redoubtable al-Dabi of
Darfur. Meanwhile, Assad is continuing to slaughter his civilian
population with abandon. Whatever the outcome of the crisis in Syria,
it can be said with certainty that the Arab League will not be the
instrument that brings the slaughter to an end.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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