Syria needs joint Arab action to end violence

By Khaled Diab

It is up to the Arab world to stop the bloodshed in – unlikely as this may sound, and despite failure so far.

While the world watches on, millions of Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees. The Zaatari camp has become Jordan's third largest population centre. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam
While the world watches on, millions of Syrians have been displaced internally or made refugees. The Zaatari camp has become Jordan's third largest population centre. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind/Oxfam

Thursday 19 September 2013

Like back in 1958, Syria is again the volatile battlefield of a medley of rival local, regional and international actors. But unlike then, Syria has not managed this time to edge back from the brink. Instead, it has become embroiled in a bloody and devastating civil war – not to mention a proxy war – that shows no sign of letting up.

When the tyrant insisted on making peaceful change impossible, he ended up making violent change inevitable. What had started as a non-violent social uprising against 's dictatorship quickly escalated as bloody repression led disgusted army officers to defect and take up arms against the state's increasingly violent repression.

Divisions within the Arab world over Syria are rife, as they are among the major international players, between hawks and doves, ideologues and pragmatists, humanitarians and power brokers. Bizarre allegiances have formed and shifted. Currently backing the Syrian government are , Iran, China and Hizbullah, with the opposition supported by the US, the UK, France and wealthy Gulf monarchies, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. has gone from being an ally of Damascus (early in the conflict) to headquartering the Free Syrian Army.

Meanwhile, Egypt is shifting towards a more pro-Assad position, on the back of the threat of US air strikes against a fellow Arab state, a public sense of grievance against Washington for its perceived backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and anti-Islamist sentiment which has turned many Egyptians against everything toppled President stood for.

As each state and non-state player competes to advance or safeguard its own “vital interests”, few of the active players seem to have an interest in the well-being of Syrians and Syria. And it is the conflict mongers who are enjoying the upper hand, with arms flooding into Syria, escalating the fighting further.

At the United Nations, it looks like a sequel of the Cold War is at play, with the trying to preserve its dwindling hegemony in the , and Russia struggling to claw back some of its lost influence. Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama both seem to be suffering from chronic irony deficiency, the symptoms of which are a severely inhibited ability to see the plain hypocrisy of their rhetoric and the destructiveness of their positions.

 The UN should have been the right address for defusing this conflict from its earliest days, but such is the nature of this world body that when it is most needed, it is usually at its most impotent.  This has to do with its faulty architecture, which concentrates real power, including the dreaded veto, in the hands of just five countries.

Even today, it is not too late for the United Nations to redeem itself. The permanent members of the Security Council can decide to set aside their narrow self-interests and, for a change, agree to pursue the greater good of humanity by deploying tens of thousands of blue helmets with a robust mandate to end the violence. But given the ongoing deadlock, despite the relative breakthrough on chemical weapons, this seems highly improbable.

But with the international community fixated on chemical weapons but in paralysis over action to stop the plentiful non-chemical killings, it must be time now for the region to pull up its bootstraps and pitch in to sort out this mess, depressingly unlikely as it may seem – and that means action by the Arab League.

Like with many other crises before, the Arab League's efforts, genuine as they were at some points, have amounted to nothing. Even the Arab League's daring act of suspending Syria and imposing sanctions on the Damascus regime did little to intimidate Assad, underscoring just how little leverage Arab countries seem to exercise over each other.

Like the Arab Peace Initiative for Israel and Palestine, the Arab League peace plan  for Syria lies on the shelf collecting dust following the withdrawal of its monitors from Syria in January 2012 owing to “a harsh new government crackdown”, in the words of Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.

These failures do not encourage optimism, especially in light of how divided the League is over the way forward and how some of its members in the Gulf are actively sending arms and funds to the rebels.

However, the situation has changed dramatically. Although the civil war in Syria is far away for members of the UN Security Council and so does not immediately challenge their security, the Arab League cannot afford to be so complacent, especially given the danger that the conflict can spill over into the wider region in an unpredictable and unexpected ways.

The Assad regime, now that it has turned much of the country into rubble and displaced millions, may be suffering from war fatigue, and could be looking round for an exit strategy. The rebels are at a military disadvantage and are in deadlock in their efforts to dislodge the regime militarily, and so may also be looking for a return to more peaceful means. This may make Arab mediation efforts more fruitful this time around.

Moreover, Arab League efforts are likely to be seen as more legitimate by the regime and the main rebel factions, not to mention the wider Arab world. In fact, the eventual prospect of returning Syria, where the ideology of pan-Arabism was born, to the Arab fold, could be used as a carrot to draw Damascus towards a negotiated solution.

So what can the Arab League do? The top priority upon which everyone should be able to agree – even those helping to bankroll the conflict – is that the violence needs to stop, both for humanitarian reasons and for pragmatic self-interest.

Taking a leaf out of the 's Peace and Security Council and its peacekeeping efforts across the continent, the Arab League can work towards negotiating a ceasefire and deploying peacekeepers from Arab countries that do not have a direct stake in the conflict. In fact, the Arab League needs to forge its own mutual security mechanism, in light of the growing likelihood of armed conflict within and between states in the region, while success could help pave the way to more enduring regional integration once this specific volatile period has passed.

Once the guns fall silent, Arab League mediators can help hammer out an interim agreement for the peaceful transition of power.

Although this seems like an unlikely scenario, especially in light of the Arab League's reputation as an ineffectual talking shop, largely due to the absence of mechanisms to enforce its resolutions, there are precedents. Arab mediation efforts successfully stopped Black September in Jordan from turning into a full-blown civil war and, eventually and after too much bloodshed, helped end the Lebanese civil war.

Today, the stakes are arguably far higher, as Syria is a more pivotal state in a region which is already far more volatile, making it in every Arab state's interest to take action. Whether they will step up is a very open question. For example, the Gulf states, who wrongly think they are far away and who have for decades seen Syria's secular pan-Arabism as a threat, are trying to use their petrodollars to hold back the ‘' revolutions or to give them a conservative, Islamic hew, may feel less inclined to join efforts to end the conflict.

But ultimately, when fellow Arabs are being slaughtered and their country turned to dust, allied Arab action is the human and humane action to take.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 16 September 2013.

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