January 2, 2012

Arab League Blows More Fog Over Syria

The Arab League’s publicly stated mission was to disperse Syria’s fog of war. Instead its monitors brought their own fog machine to thicken a shroud of internal and external propaganda.

In the 11 days since its first monitors arrived in Homs, various Arab League officials have threatened Bashar al-Assad’s regime to comply while praising his cooperation. One member recently told reporters that "the Syrian side is facilitating everything,” while another official in Damascus said the mission’s communications are being coordinated with Syria’s Foreign Ministry. The mission’s chief, Sudanese General Mustafa al-Dabi, landed with heavy baggage and soon found himself under new criticism for downplaying the conditions of Syria’s oppositional cities - comments he has since denied. Dadi also jumped to al-Assad’s defense after one monitor was quoted as saying he saw snipers, arguing, "This man said that if he saw - by his own eyes - those snipers he will report immediately.”

After a harsh reprimand from the Arab League’s parliament, Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby emerged in Cairo to provide “clarity” to Syria’s situation.

"Yes, there is still shooting and yes, there are still snipers," he told reporters at the league's headquarters. "The objective is for us to wake up in the morning to hear that no one is killed. The mission's philosophy is to protect civilians, so if anyone is killed then our mission is incomplete... There must be a complete ceasefire."

However the end result of Elaraby’s press conference is more confusion; the word “if” draws immediate attention as civilian casualties continue to be reported. He added that it was “hard to say who is shooting whom,” a line directed towards the Free Syrian Army (FSA). FSA commander Riad Mousa al-Asaad has ordered an offensive ceasefire while the League’s monitors make their rounds, although his command within the FSA and localized armed groups isn’t absolute. That said, League monitors should be able to distinguish between guerrilla fighters and government soldiers armed with high powered sniper rifles.

The notion that insurgents are applying equivalent force is also typical of counter-revolutionary propaganda.

From this point Elaraby continued to reveal the League’s bias towards al-Assad, signaling how close the two actors remain despite their public friction. Addressing al-Dadi’s position (al-Assad allegedly selected him from a list of potentials), Elaraby called him a “respectable military man with a clean reputation.” Tasking a “military man” to lead a humanitarian could make sense in another part of the world, with another military man in charge, but Dadi broadcast a negative message across Syria’s opposition.

“His record, which I saw, does not include anything that would condemn him,” said Elaraby.

After concluding “that the mission was succeeding,” Elaraby qualified himself by saying it was “too early to draw any conclusions.” He had previously claimed that only a week would be needed to assess Syria’s situation, saying “We don't need a month.” Switching back and forth, Elaraby admitted that the League’s mission is “difficult” because crimes are still being committed in areas where monitors are present. He then defended his mission - "Give the mission a chance to prove itself on the ground” - pointing to the distribution of aid and release of 3,484 political prisoners.

Independent reports counter that al-Assad has only released dozens of prisoners so far, and warn that more are jailed each day.

Elaraby’s statements naturally drew immediate criticism from Syria’s opposition, particularly his observation that Syrian tanks and ground troops had pulled out of urban areas. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights did confirm that tanks had temporarily withdrawn from withdrawn from Syrian cities, but warned that government units remain active in the streets. The group’s leader, Rami Abdul-Rahman, told The Associated Press, "They can bring the tanks back and use them to fight.”

One activist in Homs, who operates under the name Abu Rami, spoke more bluntly: “Either the Arab observers are blind or they are working for the regime.” He says al-Assad’s regime has feigned withdrawal by hiding tanks inside and outside the cities.

Syria’s National Council (SNC) and National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) face an urgent need to clarify a joint-position with the Arab League. Many statements have already been delivered before and during the League’s mission, but the ongoing situation demands a concise policy that can be referred to over the next 50 days. The burden of unraveling the Arab League’s propaganda rests squarely on Syria’s revolutionaries.

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