Time for the Arab League to step up

By Samuel Perriman

On Saturday the Arab League, best known for tea sipping diplomats and rambling diatribes, will officially suspend Syria in reaction to the Assad regime’s continuing campaign of brutal violence against the uprising.

The Arab League is best known as an ineffectual talk shop, happy to ignore violence and abuse in pursuit of the elusive goal of “Arab unity”. But this year an unusually active League has finally stood up to some of its member states’ more heinous crimes.  First regarding Libya, when its call for a no-fly zone helped pave the way for NATO intervention, and now the threat of suspension for Syria.

An extra three days were granted to the Assad regime on Wednesday to implement the terms of the November 2 deal, whereby the regime would stop its brutal onslaught, pull out the military from all cities and open up the country to foreign journalists.

Assad’s consent to the deal surprised many, especially as compliance would inevitably have led to his downfall. But even the disparate and fractured opposition could agree here: Assad was merely stalling, buying himself a bit more time.

They were proven right. In no way has Mr Assad complied with any of the agreement’s demands. Detained protestors still languish in the mukhabarat’s secret prisons; Homs is still under military siege and a blanket ban on independent reporting remains.

If anything, the regime has stepped up its brutal campaign to quash the growing numbers of protestors. Human rights groups reported that up to 70 people were killed in clashes on Monday, one of the bloodiest days since the start of the uprising 8 months ago.

That Assad would ignore the Arab League agreement is unsurprising. The surprise has instead come from the League itself. Since its backing of foreign intervention in Libya, the organisation, as well as its individual member states, have witnessed a historic change in attitude. Namely, that killing your own citizens is unacceptable. For perhaps the first time in modern Arab history, the legitimacy of murderous regimes has been openly challenged, both on the street and in the halls of power. The Middle East has joined international norms.

Until now Arab leaders would have struggled to agree with the principle that regimes that kill their own people should forfeit their legitimacy. Almost every regime in the Arab world is guilty of the crime. From King Hussein of Jordan and his massacre of Palestinians in 1970, to Hafez Assad’s artillery bombardment of Hama in 1982, to Saddam’s gassing of Kurds in 1988. For decades, standards for regime legitimacy in the Arab world have sat miles away from international norms.

The trend continues. Presidents, kings and emirs across the Middle East are still ruthlessly suppressing public dissent. Choosing one of only many examples, the Bahraini royal family, with the help of Saudi armoured troops, violently put down a popular Shia uprising, killing protestors and arresting medical personnel.

But the fact that the Arab League, with the vocal support of the public, would challenge a fellow Arab leader’s claim to power is in and of itself a dramatic shift in attitudes, all the more so considering that it has occurred in the space of a year. Perhaps emboldened by the League’s recent stance, King Abdullah of Jordan on Monday called for Assad to step down. For once, the lofty ideals of Arab unity are being put aside for a far more immediate good.

Now is the Arab League’s chance to shine. It has triggered a political process in Syria where the EU and UN have failed. By accepting the deal in the first place the Syrian regime has empowered the Arab League. Assad has effectively acknowledged its legitimacy to intervene in internal Syrian affairs.

While the regime claims the move to kick out Syria is illegal, and has made a lot of noise in the process, Assad will struggle to dismiss their views entirely. What’s more, he cannot convincingly portray this as the West meddling in Arab affairs. For years, the Assads have portrayed Syria as the “Mother of the Arab Nation”; now the Arab Nation is kicking them out of the club.

So what now for the Arab League? Firstly, it will have to remain united in its stance against Syria. A few cracks appeared during the Syria vote but they were predictable: neighbouring Shia Iraq abstained while only Lebanon – still within the Syrian sphere of influence – and Yemen voted against the proposal. Sudan, one of the 18 countries which originally backed Syria’s suspension, is now talking of rebuilding relations, while Egypt and several other member states have ignored a League call to withdraw ambassadors from Damascus.

There is also suspicion that some members might not be entirely motivated by altruism. As the current chairman of the Arab League, Qatar played the leading role in the move to suspend Syria, persuading and cajoling any wavering members. Along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar has found itself involved in a wider power battle with Iran in the region. Denying Tehran its ally in the Syrian regime would be a major coup.

Despite this, the Arab League is on the right track. The suspension of Syria will not immediately stop Assad’s murderous hand. But by continuing to pressure him the Arab League can continue to strengthen the emerging normalisation of attitudes.

An end to the chaos in Syria as well as a complete shift in standards for regime legitimacy is still a long way off but the rewards for the League could be huge. It could prove that it can resolve issues in its region and that the Arab world can solve its own problems without having to rely on the West.

The Arab world has come a long way in the space of a year. The Arab order used to reject any limits on state sovereignty. Now both Arab public opinion and the Arab League agree that murderous regimes should be sanctioned and hopefully, eventually, forced from power.

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