Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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Syria’s Future and the Arab League

by Robert M. Danin
January 12, 2012

Syria's president Bashar al-Assad addresses his supporters during a surprise appearance at a rally in Umayyad Square in Damascus on January 11, 2012 (Wael Hmedan/Courtesy Reuters). Syria's president Bashar al-Assad addresses his supporters during a surprise appearance at a rally in Umayyad Square in Damascus on January 11, 2012 (Wael Hmedan/Courtesy Reuters).

Yesterday I discussed the violence, instability, and political developments in Syria with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman, a former New York Times diplomatic correspondent and foreign editor. It’s currently the featured briefing on CFR.org. You can read the interview here.

One issue we touched upon is the Arab League monitoring mission. The Arab League monitors are getting a bad rap and for good reason. Assad has ramped up the violence, killing some forty Syrians a day on average since they arrived on December 26. The monitors clearly have not had the effect of improving the situation on the ground.

But the monitors have inadvertently served three important functions. First, they’ve drawn badly needed international attention back toward Syria and Assad’s lethal repression. At a time when the international community seems to believe that Assad’s end is inevitable and perhaps imminent, it is helpful to force Western leaders to stop averting their gaze from the daily bloodshed meted out by the Baathist regime.

Second, the monitors have clearly rankled Assad, who has taken the opportunity to demonstrate how maladroit a leader he is. His bizarre speech two days ago, in which he insulted the other Arab leaders, called Syria the victim of international plots, and pledged to carry on with his reckless ways made it hard for any Assad apologist to argue that a peaceful resolution of the conflict is immediately before us.

Third, the monitoring episode has put the Arab League in the spotlight. This is important. To salvage its own credibility, the Arab League is going to have to answer for the results, or lack thereof, of its mission when it reports on January 19. That will be a critical moment. The Arab League will have to take decisive action, referring the Syrian issue to the United Nations, implementing the sanctions it announced but has so far failed to enforce, and denouncing Assad unequivocally. Otherwise, the Arab League’s critics will be proven right, and the regional organization will relegate itself to utter irrelevance in the post-2011 Arab world.

For the international community to be able to help Syria in ways even short of intervention, regional support and the legitimacy conferred by the Arab League will be important. All effort should be devoted now to ensuring that the Arab League reports honestly and boldly when it issues its report in a week. Tragically, given the rate of killing occurring in Syria today, this means that some three hundred Syrians will be killed before the Arab League moves to this critical juncture.

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