Syria and the Arab League Initiative: Causes and Consequences


Syrians living in Greece protest at central Athens Syntagma square agianst the situation in their country. (Photo: AFP – Louisa Gouliamaki)

By: Basheer al-Baker
Little has changed on the ground in Syria following the recent agreement struck between Damascus and the Arab League. But the deal may reflect the slow emergence of an international consensus and a rethink of strategy by an increasingly isolated regime.
Until the very moment before the meeting of the Arab foreign ministers in Cairo last Wednesday, many were suspicious of Syria’s positive response to the initiative of the Arab League.
The session was over sooner than expected and without any Syrian objections or reservations. Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamed bin Jassem announced the provisions of the agreement: Stopping all acts of violence by any party in order to protect Syrian citizens; releasing those imprisoned during the recent events; ending the presence of arms in cities and the residential neighborhoods; allowing access to Syria to the designated organizations of the Arab League and permitting Arab and international media to move freely throughout Syria to examine the reality of the situation and report what is taking place there.
According to the agreement, the Syrian government will make tangible progress in the implementation of reforms while the Arab Ministerial Committee in consultation with the regime carries ut the necessary steps to prepare for the holding of a summit of national dialogue.

An Arab diplomat who attended the meetings of the Arab league said that these four points were the fruits of talks between the league’s Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi and the Syria opposition, namely the Syrian National Council (SNC).

The source indicated that it was remarkable how the Syrian ambassador to the Arab League Yusuf al-Ahmed accepted the articles of the initiative with little discussion. He did make two principal points that Damascus wanted to be included in the decision of the Arab League. The first pertains to ending the alleged media campaigns against the Syrian government.

The source clarified that the Syrian delegate tried in the beginning of the session to win over a number of the Arab countries and justify the actions of the Syrian government, saying that the Syrian army defending is the people and not the regime and that it is defending the state’s legitimate authority and the Arab nation. He accused Arab media outlets of being behind the flaring of tensions in Syria, and he specified that the two stations Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are inciting the Arab and Western world riled up against the Syrian government. However, the Qatari minister Hamed bin Khalifa cut him off saying that these media outlets are independent and nobody can interfere in their operations and that they are operating in their capacity as members of the media, noting that Syria has a national TV as a counter source of news.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem talks to reporters during a visit of ALBA countries’ foreign ministers to Damascus. (Photo: AFP – Louai Beshara)

The second point of contention for the Syrian delegate was issue of dialogue between the opposition and the regime should take place. He requested that it be in Damascus, but the Qatari minister insisted that they should talks should in the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo, which he described as the “home of the Arabs,” pointing out that many members of the Syrian opposition are not allowed to enter Syria.
The timing of the deal might suggest that the Syrian regime realizes it has isolated itself through its inflexibility in the face of Arab and international initiatives, and therefore has decided to change its tactics this time to keep the ball out of its court by way of cooperating with the Arab initiative.
On the other hand, the deal gives the regime some breathing time to review its strategy and hope that the groups it has labeled as terrorist organizations will be held responsible for the continued violence in Syria. In the absence of a means of observing the situation, it is difficult for the Arab league to refute this narrative.
The Syrian acceptance of the Arab initiative is also a sign of weakness. First, Damascus has agreed to open the door to foreign intervention for the first time by allowing the organization of the Arab league and the Arab and international media to operate freely in Syria.

Second, this will be seen among the public as a kind of concession in the face of the uprising, and every such step taken by the regime will be met with an escalation by the protest movement. Thus, the Arab initiative will become a Trojan horse that covertly topples the regime from within, since the Syrian the popular opposition movement was unable to do so on its own.

The third and final reason is that the regime has accepted the principle of dialogue with the full spectrum of the opposition. Until today, the Syrian regime has not acknowledged the existence of a broad-based opposition. They have rejected groups and personalities who joined under the banner of the SNC and the Coordination Committees, classifying many of them as the forces of foreign intervention.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a case in point. On one hand they are a major constituency within the SNC, and on the other hand they are enemies of the state according to the categorization of President Bashar Assad in his discussion with the newspaper Sunday Telegraph on October 30th Assad said that “since 1950, we have fought the Muslim Brotherhood, and we are still fighting.”

A source in Damascus explained that Syria’s acceptance of the initiative was the result of the government being caught between a rock and a hard place: To internationlize the conflict or face internal collapse.

The source says that a change has taken place in the Russian stance for the first time since the beginning of the uprising. Moscow has informed Damascus as of late that it would not be able to use its veto should the Arab League take the matter to the UN Security Council after suspending Syria’s membership in the League.

Meanwhile, the political, economic, and social price of the repressive solution in the shape that it has taken has become too high. It has begun to expose the cracks and fissures in the structure of the state and its apparatuses and threaten national unity after communal tensions erupted in Homs and Rif Dimashq.

The next few days will be decisive; however, it does not appear that the Arab initiative will be a serious or effective solution. The regime has become more extreme and the pitch of violence has been raised, especially in Homs where some say it has taken on a sectarian tint.

Despite the bleakness of the picture, the foreign and Arab centers await from the Syrian regime tangible steps towards change and implementation of the Arab solution through measures such as releasing political prisoners.

Within Western diplomatic circles, many think that the Syrian crisis has arrived at a dead end, and a break of two weeks is not enough to begin dialogue between the regime and the opposition. They argue that Arab intervention would have been perhaps more effective had it arranged from the outset for both sides to hold talks, which would have been a practical way of immediately testing the intentions of the regime and the opposition.

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