After 3,000 Deaths, Arab League Still Divided Over Syria

By Patrick Goodenough | October 17, 2011 | 5:14am EDT

Arab League secretary-general Nabil al-Arabi Nabil, left, talks to Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani during Sunday’s Arab League meeting. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

( – Divided over whether to suspend Syria’s membership over its deadly suppression of anti-government protests, the Arab League has settled instead on an appeal for the government and opposition to talk.

Sunday’s “emergency meeting” in Cairo of the 22-member bloc came two days after the United Nations’ top human rights official announced that the death toll in the seven-month crisis now exceeds 3,000, with 187 children among the dead.

It was the second diplomatic fillip for President Bashar Assad’s regime in less than a fortnight. On October 4 Russia and China cast a double veto to kill a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the violent crackdown.

Gulf states which called for the meeting of foreign ministers led the push to suspend Syria from the Arab League, but failed to secure the two-thirds majority support needed to suspend a member. Among those resisting, according to reports in Egyptian media, were Lebanon and Yemen.

Lebanon’s government is dominated by Hezbollah, a longstanding ally and client of Damascus; Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh is himself confronting a serious challenge to his rule.

Protesting against China’s veto of a Security Council resolution condemning violence in Syria, a demonstrator burns a Chinese flag in front of the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011. Flags of Russia, which also vetoed the draft resolution, were burnt too. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

With Syrian opposition supporters demonstrating outside, the meeting ended with a call for the Syrian government and opposition to begin a “national dialogue” at the Arab League headquarters in the Egyptian capital in two weeks’ time. It did not say what steps, if any, would follow if those talks do not go ahead.

During the meeting, Syrian ambassador Youssef Ahmad urged Arab states to heed the “rational” and “courageous” stance taken by Moscow and Beijing.

“We call on the Arab League to follow the example of Russia and China in confronting the U.S.-European efforts aiming at making the Security Council a tool for interfering in countries’ internal affairs and making the Arab League a tool for the U.S.-Western agendas,” Syria’s official SANA news agency quoted him as telling the meeting.

Even though the meeting did not suspend Syria, Ahmad was nonetheless unhappy about aspects of its conclusion.

Syria had reservations about the venue for the envisaged talks – “any national dialogue can only be held in Syria” – and about the decision to name Qatar’s prime minister as head of a ministerial committee to oversee the process, he said. Syria has accused Qatar’s government and media of anti-Assad bias.

Ahmad did not say whether Syria would refuse to participate in talks if those issues were not resolved.

He reiterated Damascus’ argument that the violence in Syria was the work of “armed terrorist groups” supported by outside forces. He also said, again, that the government was working to promote democracy and human rights.

On Friday, U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay said in a statement that more than 3,000 people had now been killed in Syria since the violence began in mid-March.

“The government has consistently used excessive force to crush peaceful protests,” she said. “Sniping from rooftops, and indiscriminate use of force against peaceful protestors – including the use of live ammunition and the shelling of residential neighborhoods – have become routine occurrences in many Syrian cities.”

Pillay called on the international community to “speak with one voice and act to protect the Syrian people.”

The Arab League’s approach towards the crisis in Syria has differed significantly from its stance on the unrest in Libya early this year.

Its decision to suspend Libya was viewed as a turning point in isolating Muammar Gaddafi’s regime – and paved the way for a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention. (The draft resolution on Syria which European members and the U.S. failed to get through the Security Council, did not call for military intervention.)

By contrast, the Arab bloc was silent on the Syrian crackdown for several months, and it was mid-July by the time Arab League secretary-general Nabil al-Arabi visited Damascus.

Rather than put pressure on Assad, however, he used to trip to voice opposition to outside interference in the affairs of Arab states.

In August, al-Arabi was publicly critical for the first time, issuing a statement voicing “growing concern and strong distress over the deteriorating security conditions in Syria due to escalating violence and military operations.”

He returned to the Syrian capital in September, but his calls for a ceasefire went unheeded.

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