Watershed moment

Arab League meet in Cairo on January 8, 2012. (AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI)

The Arab League’s observer mission to Syria has reached its mid-way point after officials in Cairo discussed Sunday an initial report on the mission’s findings and conclusions thus far.

The Syrian opposition suffers from a lack of cohesiveness, but certain elements have already expressed their disappointment with the Arab League’s performance. This has emerged in the statements of opposition figures at the top, namely those who are outside the country and trying to negotiate its fate, to those at the bottom, namely the many protesters who have held up signs signaling their disenchantment with the monitor mission.

But the observers have had an impact; they have recorded the violations to Syria’s commitments to the Arab League, and masses of people have taken to the street to express their opposition to the government of President Bashar Assad, in part encouraged by the presence of the monitors.

While it is too soon to condemn the mission as a failure, the clock is now ticking on the second half of this contest. The remaining 10 days of the monitors’ mission represent the final opportunity for Syrian officials to honor their country’s signature on the agreement with the Arab League.

The initial findings, as presented in Cairo, indicate that Damascus is failing to fully comply with the agreement’s key requirements, such as releasing detainees, permitting the media to enter, removing a military presence from urban areas, and halting the violent crackdown on demonstrators.

Meanwhile, the Arab League and the Syrian opposition also face important challenges.

The opposition might agree on a few things, but they suffer from several crippling disputes. One is the exact nature of the next step that they should demand, if the Arab League fails to give Syria a clean bill of health on Jan. 19. The opposition should be aware that asking for foreign intervention has yet to enjoy a domestic consensus, and until the several main groups hammer out a workable plan on the next step, and the steps to follow, they will be risking the huge sacrifices that thousands of people have made since last March.

The next 10 days will be a watershed for these main players. The Syrians can speak defiantly all they want and talk about foreign conspiracies, but they simply must prove that they intend to see a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

The Arab League has suffered from a lack of credibility for decades; if Cairo gets a mission of this importance right, it will go some way to restoring its deservedly poor reputation.

Finally, opposition figures might find it easy to predict that Damascus will receive a failing grade later this month, but they will find themselves tested at the very moment that the regime fails – they will simply have to iron out their differences and present a united front, or risk seeing the Syrian regime divide and conquer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 10, 2012, on page 7.




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