December 5, 2011

Update: Syria Returns Hardball to Arab League

Amid Bashar al-Assad’s latest attempt to stall a favorable Arab League proposal and all of its trappings - the withdrawal of military forces, release of political prisoners, Arab monitors and a “dialogue” with Syria’s opposition - his Foreign Ministry has lobbed a predictable hard-ball back at the League. With the clock expiring past Sunday’s 24-hour “deadline,” spokesman Jihad Makdesi announced that Damascus had “responded positively” to the League’s “protocol.”

Makdesi claimed that political deal “is intended to be signed soon” According to Syrian’s SANA state news, he added that the Arab League “agreed on a definite time period for the protocol which can be extended with the consent of the two sides...”

While Makdesi ambiguously remarked that Damascus was “still looking at the Arab plan,” al-Assad’s regime believes that it has already met most of its conditions - and thus cannot understand why Arab countries are turning on one of their own. Makdesi insisted that his government is “committed to the Arab initiative signed in Doha and we implemented a number of its articles. We pulled out all of our army from the centers of cities and released arrested people who haven’t been convicted for murder.” Beyond requesting that the proposal be signed in Damascus instead of the League’s Cairo headquarters, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem clarified that Arab monitors must coordinate with Syrian authorities.

As for a “dialogue” with the opposition, what need does the government have to negotiate with “terrorists” and “rebels?”

“Any announcements made by the Syrian regime while the military crackdown continuous has for us zero credibility,” said Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council (SNC).

Damascus also expects increased cooperation with the Arab League, an automatic red flag to Syria’s opposition. Makdesi spoke of “enhanced” coordination as Syrian and Arab officials haggle over the League’s eighth article, which addresses the sovereignty and the political systems of member states, and “high-level coordination” in the event that al-Assad agrees to the League’s initiative. The regime plans to form a “national committee” to coordinate with Arab officials and potential monitors.

All of these measures are designed to neutralize Arab pressure and simultaneously exploit the League’s tacit political shield. In a letter addressed to Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby, al-Moallem expects that al-Assad’s signature on the League’s proposal will render “all resolutions issued by the AL Council with the absence of Syria to be null, including suspending its membership and sanctions imposed on it.”

"Diplomacy is an art," Makdissi said. "We delivered our best, and we believe that such an offer cannot be rejected. We are so keen on solving everything within the Arab framework, but again, we need to be realistic about the true intentions out there."

“We did our part of the deal,” he concludes, “and we are waiting a positive response.”

So will the Arab League continue playing softball with al-Assad’s regime? Speaking to CNN, Elaraby responded that “Syria’s acceptance of the protocol does not mean that we will suspend the sanctions.” He also said that Damascus’s counter-offer included “new elements that we have not heard before,” which are “being discussed now with the Arab foreign ministers.” Although he insists that Syria’s sanctions will remain in place until further notice, this “threat” appears primarily designed to push a favorable deal.

al-Assad and the Arab League’s tango could last for a few more weeks before a new act opens.

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