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Hichem Karoui: New outlook… old structures
November 19, 2011
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I am entirely convinced that the Arab League is doing its possible to deflect more a catastrophic development in the Syrian crisis. Yet, it is not enough. Whatever the good intentions of the Arab leaders, the way they chose to tackle the crisis is flawed. The heavy inertia of the bureaucratic apparatus of the league is definitely not adapted to handling local problems. The fact that the League decided to suspend Syria is in itself an acknowledgement of the fundamental right to oppose and even revolt against the regime, if we do not consider it squarely as a condemnation of the official narration of the crisis (the so-called international conspiracy). This is already not a little affair: the Arab League is an official body representing states, not the population or the civil society.

It is rare when it leaves its diplomatic and polite bits and bobs and venture in statements antagonising member-states. It happened once, in 1979, when the Arabs condemned Sadat’s lonely agreement with Israel (the peace accords) and decided to suspend and isolate Egypt. The case was serious. Yet, it was far from being an internal issue. The League was still playing on its own ground: diplomacy.

In 1975, when it decided to mediate in Lebanon by sending the “Arab Deterrent Force” (which actually was the Syrian army), the crisis was hardly describable as local or internal, for there were at least two camps — each with its own allies from inside and outside the country — facing each other, and one of them (i.e. the Palestinian) was part of the civil war and foreigner at the same time. The League was then still fulfilling its function: diplomacy and mediation between Arab officials. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the League condemned Iraq unanimously and played its role...

We can enumerate the examples that show the kind of work the Arab League has been doing since its foundation in the forties of the previous century. The point is clear: Diplomacy is the key word here; and as far as I remember, the League has never interfered in domestic affairs; neither was expected to do so. That is why the new outlook of the League is somehow surprising not only to the Syrian regime, profoundly upset by the ultimatum, but to all of us.

We are not surprised because the Arab League reacted after what seemed to be centuries of inertia... We are surprised because it proposed a plan which is actually a kind of “crisis management,” although nothing in the League’s past experiences and infrastructure and organisation predisposes it to handle such a plan and see to its implementation. Absolutely nothing.

This is amazing. Let us put it this way:

The Arab ministers of foreign affairs that gathered twice in a few days (on 12 and 16 November) and made the decision of facing the Syrian regime with both the carrot and the stick issued a clear message: this may be the last chance to save Syria from the chaos following the internationalisation and the militarisation of the crisis. If the Syrian regime rejects the Arab League mediation and stubbornly sticks to its version of an Arab-international conspiracy to overthrow Assad, therefore it would have to face the unknown. The Arab League has voted on the first meeting to suspend Syria, then on the second meeting to offer the regime a way out by signing a protocol to allow 30 to 50 Arab observers to enter the country and report their testimony. Economic and political sanctions would be implemented in case the regime fails to live up to its promises.

The point is: while this plan seems “perfect” at the first sight, it would become absolutely vain in the practice. Why? For several reasons among which:

1. Admittedly, Assad agrees on signing the proposed protocol for the entry of 30 to 50 observers, what would these observers do to cover an area of 185,180sq-km with a population estimated at 22 million people, and a wide variety of ethnical and religious communities? Where would 30 or 50 or even 100 fit in this picture? And how would they do their job of witnessing and reporting the atrocities happening right now? Does anybody know the answer?

2. On November 12, the Arab League offered the Syrian regime four days to answer positively its request before the suspension becomes effective; then on November 16, in Rabat, it offered three other days to sign the protocol. What about the suspension if Damascus accepts to sign? No answer. Nevertheless, we know that there will be economic sanctions (although these words were carefully avoided in the written statement of the League). Are the Arab leaders aware of these inconsistencies? And how would the Syrian regime interpret them?

3. If the Syrian regime decides all the same to play the game and accept the observers, would that mean that the Arab league has taken control of the situation on the ground so to impede further killings and atrocities? Absolutely not. The League has no means to control the field. The Syrian regime can still kill and lie and mask; and most of all, the Arab League has no means of knowing what is going on really and no means for reacting adequately. Therefore, the protection of the civilians, which is the purpose of this action, cannot be achieved by these defective proposals.

It seems obvious that while the coordinated action of the Arab league is wished and welcomed by both the population and the opposition, it is still far away from reaching the level of political efficiency we want to see. For this to be achieved, the League has to be re-thought, restructured, and reorganised in order to respond to the new requirements of the Arab societies today. However, the paradox here is patent: on the one hand, this is not the kind of work to be done on the short-term. On the second hand, the urgency in the case of Syria and Yemen requires a new dynamic of the Arab common political action; and it is not obvious that we could head towards the announced goals with the old structures.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East relations at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute).

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