Is it remotely reassuring that the Arab League is dealing with the crisis in Syria? For a partial answer, note that the Arab observer mission in the country is headed by a Sudanese general who participated in his government’s brutal campaign in Darfur. He described his first day on the highways as “very good,” only hours after Syria’s security forces perpetrated their latest outrage in Homs.
Recall that until two months ago, the Arab states allowed the massacre to continue. There was a lack of unity over Syria, but also a hope in several capitals that the criminal enterprise that is President Bashar Assad’s regime would prevail, denying a fresh victory to those striving to change their leaders in other parts of the Arab world.
Score the latest round to Damascus. In November the tide was in the other direction. Arab sanctions had been agreed, including a cutoff of transactions with Syria’s central bank and a suspension of Syrian membership in the Arab League. Assad initially delayed accepting a five-point Arab plan, which includes withdrawing the army and security forces from Syrian cities, releasing prisoners, and deploying observers to determine if the plan is being implemented. He backed down when the Arab states threatened to go to the United Nations Security Council, buying Damascus valuable time to undercut the Arab plan.
We know what will happen next. The Syrians will turn every issue into an object of exasperating negotiation, assuming the observers do their job right, which is improbable. Nor are there enough observers to make a difference. Even if the mission rises to 200-300 monitors, that remains far too low. There have been disturbances in dozens of large urban areas throughout Syria, not to mention in suburban and rural districts. That means major agglomerations will host only a handful of observers at best. The regime will run rings around them, a reality facilitated by the cynical Arab decision to allow the monitors to be transported by the very security services they are supposed to be monitoring.
Then there is the prisoner release dimension of the Arab plan. In Lebanon we well remember how difficult it was to determine the number of Lebanese in Syrian prisons, because Damascus invariably lied about the figures. The Assad regime will greatly downplay the numbers of Syrians it has incarcerated, and the observers will almost certainly not get a mandate, or display the will, to independently verify this. The regime will release prisoners here and there, in full view of the observers, and arrest new waves of victims elsewhere.
If the Assad regime is lucky, it will be able to stretch the process out long enough for Arab states to push for a start of negotiations with the opposition, another facet of the Arab plan. Why would this be to the regime’s benefit? Because if it can pursue its repression in the interim period unchallenged, agreeing to negotiations would allow it to kick off a long, fruitless phase of talks permitting it to claim it is sincere about the Arab project, even as this opens up cracks in the opposition.
But which opposition? That, too, will provoke extensive maneuvering, as the Assads will look to pick their interlocutors, and as different segments of the opposition disagree over whether to negotiate or not. The Syrian National Council will doubtless refuse to sit with the regime, which may carry political costs, as this could be portrayed by Bashar Assad as an effort to undermine the Arab plan. Here, the president and his acolytes may widen the breach in Arab ranks.
The problem is that Arab incompetence, even if it strengthens the hand of the Syrian leadership in relative terms, will make much more likely further militarization of the intifada. There is no going back in Syria, certainly not to the squalid kleptocracy that a smug Bashar Assad thought was unshakeable last January, when he boasted of his regime’s popularity to The Wall Street Journal. Either the Arab plan eases Assad out of power, or we are heading toward a struggle even more vicious than what we are witnessing today. National interest dictates that regional states, above all Turkey and Iraq, will seek to shape what is taking place on the ground and ensure that they don’t lose out when the carnage ends. If that happens, the Security Council will become the only available venue to address Syria, since we will then have a textbook threat to international peace and security.
Much will depend on how the Arab states interpret their mandate. The Arab League’s secretary general, Nabil Elarabi, has noted that the organization will issue an early assessment of whether the Syrian regime is cooperating with its plan. If that denies Syria the means to deceive its Arab brethren, fine. But rebuilding an Arab consensus against Assad rule will be difficult, and going the next step up to the Security Council is something many Arab regimes want to avert.
Qatar has taken the lead on Syria, but may find itself isolated. The Egyptian military council, which is trying to consolidate its authority, opposes the trend of transformation in the Arab world. No less so Saudi Arabia, which has had little sympathy for the upheavals all around, and would relish a Qatari reversal. Iraq has sided with Assad, while other countries, among them Turkey, may fear too sudden a Syrian collapse to firmly sponsor internationalization of the crisis.
Syrians are right to regard Arab intervention as bad news. And Assad was right to presume that a break in the Arab momentum against his regime could become a turning point in his political survival. He gains from the militarization of the intifada. In an armed conflict, Assad believes, the winner imposes his own legitimacy. Many Arab leaders, whose own legitimacy rests on intimidation, may alas agree.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster). He tweets @BeirutCalling.