Dec 6th 2011

Dubious Dealings: Syria and the Arab League

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

The ongoing diplomatic tug of war between Syria and the Arab League took an unexpected turn Monday with rumors of a potential breakthrough. A positive outcome would signal a major political - not procedural - change of heart at the Arab League, whose earlier dealings with Syria showed little room for compromise.

Last week, the Arab League broke with its own charter for the second time this year, voting to impose far-reaching economic sanctions on member-state Syria, eight months after backing a no-fly zone over member-state Libya.

The charter, which was written in the early post-colonial period, placed great stock in the inviolability of “a state's independence, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.”

Article V of the League’s charter clearly stipulates: “Any resort to force in order to resolve disputes between two or more member-states of the League is prohibited. If there should arise among them a difference which does not concern a state’s independence, sovereignty, or territorial integrity [my italics], and if the parties to the dispute have recourse to the Council for the settlement of this difference, the decision of the Council shall then be enforceable and obligatory.”

A recently-departed senior Arab League official told me: “We have taken strong measures before only in relation to foreign policy issues or disputes between Arab countries. But on these last two occasions, this is a historic departure in relation to the practice of the Arab League. For the first time measures were taken against an Arab country because of its internal situation – the way a government is treating its own people.”

He continued, “When people are dying I don’t care about reconciling this with the charter – that’s my priority. If there are legal issues that contravene, I’m happy to bend them.”

But what about the tens of thousands of civilians slaughtered in member-state Somalia this year alone, with nary a peep from the Arab League? Or of the League’s non-intervention policy in Yemen and Bahrain, where protests continue to this day?

So why did the League single out Syria for sanctions?

Ostensibly, it is because Damascus refused an Arab League observer mission to Syria, but that is not exactly true. The Syrians counter-proposed a series of amendments to the mission “Protocol” to accommodate their sovereignty concerns. It was the League that rejected these outright on November 27, although they appear to have reopened negotiations quietly in the past few days.

Consider this: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – now effectively at the helm of Syrian issues in the Arab League - spent seven months negotiating an exit for the despotic Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh.

When asked about double-standards in the treatment of Syria versus other Arab member-states, the recently-departed senior League official admitted, “I think the position taken by the Arab countries in relation with Bahrain is a very sad one – we should have been more firm.”

On Yemen however, his response was curious, “Yemen – it is being handled by the GCC, and doesn’t need the Arab League’s help right now.”

But the same players refused to spend even seven days on Syria. The League dropped the sanctions gauntlet a mere three days after Syria offered its amended proposal, claiming these would “affect the core of the document and would radically change the nature of the mission.”

But is that true? Would Syria’s amendments sink the project as some League members alleged?

Much ado has been made about Syria's amendments in Arab League statements, but other than a brief reference to a couple of provisions in Al-Hayat newspaper, these have not been made public.

Below is a much more comprehensive outline of Syria's counter-proposal obtained from a well-connected, non-Syrian source. There is little in the document that could not have been negotiated to accommodate both Syria’s desire to maintain sovereignty in this process and the Arab League’s determination to carry out its mission:

Syria’s Amendments to the Arab League Monitoring Mission (November 2011)

Clause I

“An independent mission is to be formed, composed of Arab military and civilian personnel nominated by Arab states and organizations involved in human rights and the provision of protection to civilians, to be sent to the Syrian Arab Republic. It will be known as the Arab League Monitoring Mission and operate within its framework. It is assigned with monitoring implementation of the Arab plan for resolving the Syrian crisis and providing protection to Syrian civilians.”

Syrian amendment:

“An independent Mission is to be formed, composed of Arab military and civilian personnel nominated by Arab states, to be sent to the Syrian Arab Republic. It will be known as the Arab League Monitoring Mission and operate within its framework. It is assigned with monitoring implementation of the clauses of the Arab plan for resolving the current crisis in Syria. The Syrian side will be provided with a list comprising the names, status, ranks and nationalities of the Mission’s members.”

Clause II

“The Mission will start work immediately after Syria signs this Protocol. It will initially dispatch a delegation consisting of the Head of the Mission and an adequate number of monitors (between 30 and 50), supported by an appropriate number of administrative staff and sufficient security personnel to provide personal protection to members of the Mission.”

Syrian amendment:

“The Mission will start work immediately after Syria signs this Protocol. It will initially dispatch a delegation consisting of the Head of the Mission and an adequate number of monitors, supported by an appropriate number of administrative staff.”

Clause II – Subclause

“The number of monitors will be determined by the Head of the Mission, in consultation with the Secretary-General, in accordance with his assessment of the Mission’s requirements to perform its task of monitoring the Syrian government’s compliance with its commitments to protecting civilians in the fullest manner. The Secretary-General may call on technical assistance and observers from Arab, Islamic and friendly states in carrying out the tasks assigned to the Mission.”

Syrian amendment:

“The number of monitors will be determined by the Head of the Mission, in consultation with the Secretary-General and in coordination with Syria, in accordance with his assessment of the Mission’s requirements in performing its task of monitoring the Syrian government’s compliance with its commitments in the fullest manner. The Secretary-General may call on technical assistance and observers from Arab states in carrying out the tasks assigned to the Mission.”

Clause III, Subclause 3

“To verify the release of those detained due to the current events.”

Syrian amendment:

“To verify the phased release of those detained due to the current events who were not involved in crimes of murder or acts of sabotage.”

Clause III, Subclause 4

“To confirm the withdrawal and evacuation of military and armed forces from cities and residential areas which witnessed, or are witnessing, demonstrations and protests.”

Syrian amendment:

“To confirm the withdrawal and evacuation of military and armed forces from cities and residential areas.”

Clause III, Subclause 7

“The Mission will have full freedom of movement, and the freedom to make whatever visits or contacts it considers appropriate, in relation to matters pertaining to its tasks and modus operandi with regard to the provision of protection for civilians.”

Syrian amendment:

“The Mission will have full freedom of movement, and the freedom to make whatever visits or contacts it considers appropriate, in relation to matters pertaining to its tasks and modus operandi, in coordination with the Syrian side.”

Clause IV, Subclause 2

“Access and freedom of movement will be granted to all members of the Mission to all parts of the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic at the times specified by the Mission.”

Syrian amendment:

“Access and freedom of movement will be granted to all members of the Mission in coordination with the Syrian side.”

Clause IV, Subclause 5

“To guarantee that no person, or member of their family, will be punished, harassed or compromised — in any form whatsoever — as a result of having contact with the Mission or providing it with testimony or information.”

Syrian amendment:

“To guarantee that no person will be punished or subjected to pressure — in any form whatsoever — as a result of having contact with the Mission or providing it with testimony or information.”

In addition, the Syrian government wanted the following two points added to the Protocol:

1.“This protocol is valid for two months from the date of signature, renewable with the consent of both sides”

2. “The Syrian government will not incur any financial costs as a result of the Mission performing its task.”

If some of these provisions were problematic, the Syrian authorities seemed willing to find a possible compromise. When Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem contacted Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby a few months back, it was “to try to gain some time to find a way out of this crisis,” according to a Syrian source.

A senior Arab League official who would not speak on the record, claims that the Syria initiative was steered away from its original form by “some of the ministers who didn’t like the direction and started dictating certain ideas that they knew Syria would not accept.”

Qatar, whose Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani chairs the Arab League’s committee on Syria, could have produced a more constructive outcome, if it wished.

Instead, says the official, the “Protocol” to create a League observer delegation was forwarded with an “ultimatum” in a short time, which we have never experienced in the history of diplomacy at the Arab League.

Why not do this right? This is needed not only for Syria – why not a plan for everywhere in the region?”

“The whole process was meant to gain a refusal, to move to the second stage of this game,” warns the official.

What is this next stage? Al-Thani himself may have offered that answer when he hinted that the League could seek international intervention “if the Syrians do not take us seriously.”

Nobody is guiding the Arab League’s actions today more than this one-man Qatari show.

Qatar stands out as the one Arab nation to have formulated a proactive plan to deal with these revolts. It has thrown money, clout and military force behind ensuring desirable outcomes. So far its goal appears to be two-fold: backing Islamists to replace secular regimes, and thwarting the influence of all other competing regional power centers while it goes about its plans.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, its long-term rival in the Persian Gulf, the tiny Emirate kingdom is not trying to thwart change at all. Rather, it is proactively leading a selective strategy to remake the wider Middle East in its own image.

The Arabic-language press was agog with the tongue-lashing Al-Thani delivered his Algerian counterpart at a Syria-related Arab League meeting on November 12:

“Stop defending Syria because when your turn comes you may need us!” he allegedly roared at Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci when the latter registered an objection.

Yet the Qatari PM managed to feign regret in public when he announced last weekend, “Today, we are very sad to hold such a meeting as the Syrian government has not signed the observer mission.”

The League needs to start as it means to continue. Consistent, lawful and devoid of double standards.We are witnessing a dangerous willingness in the global political elite to circumvent rule of law, territorial integrity and sovereignty to jostle for positioning in the new emerging Middle East order.

Tolerating aerial bombardment of civilians by foreign forces and dragging the body of a deposed head of state through the streets are an indication of creeping lawlessness – much of which appears to be tacitly accepted by the “international community.”

This is unquestionably a new era in the Arab League. The organization is being thrust into a regional decision making role – without any history of competence or effectiveness - during a time when the Arab world is experiencing seismic shifts. Is the Arab League capable of rising to this challenge? Or will it remain an institution that rubber-stamps the policies of its most powerful members?

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