Arab League Ignores Syrian Turmoil

By Patrick Goodenough | May 9, 2011 | 5:19am EDT

In a photo taken on a mobile phone, Syrians protest against the regime of President Assad in the coastal town of Banias on Thursday, May 5, 2011. (AP Photo)

( – Two months after the Arab League won praise for its unprecedented call for international intervention in Libya, the bloc of 22 Arab states is reverting to its customary role of closing ranks, this time around the Assad regime in Syria.

At a time of historic change and challenge in the Arab world, the Arab League has chosen to postpone for a second time a leaders’ summit that would have provided an opportunity to embrace the transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, welcome reform efforts in other member states, and tackle head-on the crises in Syria and Yemen.

Already put off once since March, the 33rd Arab League Summit was supposed to take place this month, with Iraq acting as host for the first time in more than three decades.

Instead, following talks last weeks between Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the AL announced the postponement, saying the decision “takes account of current events in several Arab countries.”

Delaying the meeting – this time by 10 months – would “ensure the summit would offer results sufficient for the ambitions of the Arab people for reform,” it said.

Although summits have not been held every year since the first one in 1964, the AL has stressed the importance of annual summits, and this will be the first time in a decade that a summit has not been held every year.

Syrian soldiers atop armored vehicles withdraw from the southern city of Daraa on Thursday, May 5, 2011. The regime has expanded its crackdown elsewhere by deploying soldiers and arresting hundreds ahead of a fresh wave of anti-government protests. (AP Photo/SANA)

The protests that have roiled the Arab world in recent months have exposed rifts among the Arab governments.

When Arab League foreign ministers on March 12 appealed to the U.N. Security Council to impose a “no-fly” zone over Libya, setting the stage for a subsequent Security Council resolution and military intervention, Syria and Algeria opposed the decision.

Differences also were evident in Arab capitals’ response to the unrest in Bahrain, where a minority Sunni regime has been confronting a challenge by majority Shi’ites.

Bahrain’s Persian Gulf allies rallied to support the monarchy, with Saudi troops invited in mid-March to help restore order.

But the crackdown on Bahrain’s Shi’ites inflamed their co-religionists in Iraq, and the Shi’ite government in Baghdad criticized Bahrain and the Gulf states’ intervention. In response, some Gulf states called for the Arab League summit to be canceled.

But it is the Arab League’s response – or lack of it – to the situation in Syria that has been most jarring.

Just days after the AL’s momentous call for intervention in Libya, Syria was facing its own crisis, as President Bashar Assad’s forces began to crack down violently on anti-government protests. Seven weeks later, the death toll in the uprising has climbed above 600, according to rights activists.

Not only has the League said nothing about Syria, but when AL foreign ministers hold a meeting in mid-May – to appoint a successor to the outgoing Moussa – there are currently no plans to discuss the crisis.

Egypt’s Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper cited an Arab League “official source” as saying the decision not to discuss Syria at the foreign ministers’ meeting was the result of pressure being applied by the United Arab Emirates, “to prevent any decisions being issued against Syria.”

(The AL did issue a statement on April 26 condemning the use of force against demonstrators in Arab countries, but did not identify Syria or any other country by name.)

Arab reluctance to tackle Damascus also is evident at the United Nations.

In the Security Council, sole Arab member Lebanon – backed by permanent heavyweights China and Russia – has led efforts to block any criticism of Syria.

When the U.N. Human Rights Council held an emergency session on Syria on April 29, not one of the Arab states on the council voted in favor of a resolution condemning the violence. (Mauritania voted against the text, Saudi Arabia and Djibouti abstained, and Bahrain, Jordan, and Qatar were declared absent. The seventh Arab member, Libya, is suspended.)

The AL has also been silent in the face of appeals by human rights advocacy groups, in the Arab world and beyond, for it to withdraw its support for Syria’s bid to join the Human Rights Council this month. The election will be held on May 20.

In a joint call, two Egyptian and two Syrian human rights groups urged Arab governments to support a campaign to block Syria’s candidacy.

“Syria’s inclusion in the Council would not only be a breach of the norms used in the selection of members of the Council, but at the present time, it would be tantamount to a reward for the Syrian regime for the crackdown and massacres committed against its people,” said the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, and the Committees for the Defense of Democracy Freedom and Human Rights in Syria.

A new start for the Arab League, or merely a blip?

The AL’s uncharacteristic stance on Libya – it first suspended Libya’s membership and then, for the first time ever, endorsed outside intervention in the domestic affairs of an Arab state – won praise from some quarters.

As AL officials and foreign ministers spoke about “a new era” some analysts wondered whether the Arab unrest would breathe new life into the feeble bloc.

But Ahmad Youssef Ahmad of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research attributed the Arab League’s position on Libya to “ulterior reasons.”

“On the one hand, Libyan regime has not maintained good relations with Arab states and so no Arab state objected to the decision of imposing a ‘no-fly zone’ over it, with the exception of Syria and Algeria,” he said at the time.

“On the other hand, Libyan regime took used excessive force to clamp down on protests that made it difficult, if not impossible, for even its supporters to defend. The third factor was the desertion by the Libyan envoy to the Arab League, which left the regime unrepresented at the regional forum.”

Ahmad also wondered whether Moussa’s imminent departure and his plans to contest Egypt’s presidential election in September played a role.

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