November 18, 2011

U.S. Lulled Into Arab League’s Syrian Plot

Last Saturday the Arab League finally appeared to respond to Syria’s pro-democracy movement, which had just concluded its “Friday of Freezing Syria's Arab League Membership.” An “ultimatum” was delivered to Bashar al-Assad: withdraw your security forces from Syria’s cities within three days or face suspension. His proxies and loyalists responded with immediate violence, attacking embassies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France) and denouncing the League’s decision as a Western plot.

Except for the mounting casualties, Syria’s drama feels like a night of professional wrestling.

More paper tiger than African lion, the Arab League’s whimper is living up to its meek reputation in Syria. Strip away a “tough” decision to quarantine al-Assad’s government and his retaliation, and the League remains complicit with Syria’s strongman. Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani tacitly exposed their relationship through his personal statements over the past five days. Qatar’s Foreign Minister emerged after the League’s emergency session in Morocco to tell reporters, "We do not want to talk about a last-ditch attempt because I do not want this to sound like a warning. What I can say is that we are close to the end of the road as far as the (League's) efforts on this front are concerned."

"Economic sanctions are certainly possible if the Syrian government does not respond.”

Bin Jassim can sleep soundly knowing that his words fall drastically short of a warning. How, exactly, must al-Assad respond in order to save his seat in the Arab League? In the foreign minister’s own words, the Syrian government has another three days "to sign the protocol that was sent by the Arab League.” This step would permit a mission of international observers to oversee Syrian’s human rights environment and any electoral processes. In other words, the League is still scamming for a counterproductive initiative that favors al-Assad’s regime.

Negotiated over the last month and “agreed upon” at the beginning of November, the Arab League’s plan calls for Syrian forces to withdraw from restive cities and cease their fire against protesters. al-Assad must release political prisoners, allow international journalists and monitors into the country and open a dialogue with the opposition within two weeks. The deal sounds favorable to Syria’s protesters until the last point, which rules out regime change and effectively negates the entire proposal.

"We are happy to have reached the agreement and we'll be happier if it is carried out," Bin Jassim said. "Now it is important for the Syrian side to carry out this agreement because it is what will allow the situation to quiet down and the crisis to be resolved."

A diverging outcome is more likely. Syria’s largest opposition network, the Syrian National Council (SNC), and many pro-democracy protesters reject the regime’s “dialogue” as a stalling tactic. Their situation parallels Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain’s external manipulation, and is openly associated with these uprisings. Speaking to reporters after the first strategic dialogue between Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threw both powers firmly behind the Arab League’s proposal.

"The Russian position has been embodied in the Security Council resolution on Yemen adopted a few days ago unanimously. This resolution was based on the GCC initiative which provides for the need of the government and the opposition to sit down and agree upon a deal which would resolve the current crisis. It's a fair deal, it's a fair initiative, an initiative which is being implemented these days.”

Lavrov explained that Moscow and GCC states agreed that, "[the Syrian situation] requires the same approach [as Yemen], an approach that provides for the need of the government and the opposition to deal with each other, the same approach must apply to the situation in Syria.”

On Tuesday GCC Secretary-General Abdul Latif Al Zayani rejected an emergency meeting on Syria, instead voicing support for “League efforts to end the bloodshed.” Two days later Lavrov blamed oppositional defectors for Syria's violence. The interaction between these foreign powers highlights the trap proposal set by the League.

The Obama administration now finds itself deep in a counter-revolutionary plot. While cautiously supportive of the Arab League’s efforts, U.S. officials have preached mutual interests with the GCC as the bloc employs identical strategies in Syria and Yemen. Because the White House is open to regime change in Syria but not in Yemen, copy-and-paste diplomacy has sunk the White House into an awkward position. Coordinating with the Arab League possesses its advantages - “Arabizing” Syria’s international isolation - if the AL and GCC can be trusted. However this “isolation” currently doubles as protection, and some U.S. officials have inadvertently confronted the possibility.

Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters after al-Assad initially “agreed” to the Arab League’s proposal, "There is a risk here that they are trying to string out diplomacy, that they are trying to offer their own people half steps, or quarter measures, rather than taking the real steps." Such a policy is actively pursued in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, forcing the Obama administration to flow with the Arab current in Syria.

Fresh U.S. rhetoric upholds this trend; public support for the League increased after issuing its suspension notice to al-Assad. President Barack Obama lauded the Arab League’s “leadership in its effort to end the crisis and hold the Syrian government accountable,” even though the League’s proposal is counterproductive to these ends. He insisted that “the United States joins with the Arab League in its support for the Syrian people.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton similarly declared, “Today the Arab League took a strong and historic stance aimed at stopping the violence in Syria and protecting Syrian civilians. The United States commends the principled stand taken by the Arab League and supports full implementation of its efforts to bring a peaceful end to the crisis.”

The Arab League’s “strong and historic stance” is designed to alleviate pressure on itself and al-Assad; “full implementation” of its proposal would place a new mountain in front of Syria’s revolutionaries. These types of statements illustrate how the U.S. is cooperating with the AL and GCC, and thus Moscow and Beijing, to suppress revolutionary change in Syria. Although the Obama administration and European powers view the Arab League as an internal tool to pressure al-Assad, the body’s allegiance remains overt. Traveling with the Arab herd will push U.S. policy towards regime management and away from Syria’s pro-democracy movement.

The entire setup sheds light on the recent spate of attacks organized by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

"At the moment no country in the world has helped," Colonel Riad al-Asaad, the FSA’s commander, told BBC over the weekend. "All of them, every country has refused. Even Turkey has never offered us even one bullet and has even completely banned operations on the border, or on the road to the border. On the other hand, we are from inside Syria, we work inside Syria and the weapons are from Syria."

The Arab League will eventually knock itself out of Syria’s revolution, and U.S. would be wise to unhitch itself before that point. The fear of being perceived as Western interventionists is currently outweighing the urgency to support Syrians in their hour of need.


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