The Arab League’s mission in Syria has finally sprung a tangible leak. Whether Bashar al-Assad and his remaining allies in the League can plug this hole will be revealed shortly, as the mission cannot last much longer at its present rate. Amid a UN report that counted 400 dead in the last two weeks, the first monitors have begun to scurry off of Sudanese General Mohamed al-Dabi’s ship.
"Two monitors have excused themselves, an Algerian and an Sudanese," Syria operations chief Adnan Khodeir said at League headquarters in Cairo.
Anwar Malek presumably expected to find himself under immediate attack as the first deserter. Asked to estimate the ranks of his sympathizers, Malek would tell Reuters, "I cannot specify a number, but many.” When you talk to them their anger is clear.” The Algerian quickly attracted hostile fire from the Arab League and his own government, both of which denied his gruesome account of Syria’s cities. In a League statement, “Gen. Mohammed Al-Dabi, the head of the Arab monitors’ mission to Damascus, has confirmed that what the Malek said to a satellite channel does not relate to the truth in any way.”
“Since he was assigned to the Homs team, Malek did not leave the hotel for six days and did not go out with the rest of the team into the field giving the excuse that he was sick.”
The fallacy of this defense is easily demonstrable. First, Syrian protesters remark that anyone with eyes can see the conditions in oppositional cities; Malek could have looked outside and witnessed abuses in Homs. The conditions he reported match non-government accounts: "The snipers are everywhere shooting at civilians. People are being kidnapped. Prisoners are being tortured and none were released... The mission was a farce and the observers have been fooled.”
Meanwhile Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi is alternating between bailing water and conceding his mission’s failure. After defending the League for increasing the number of protesters, removing military vehicles from cities and pushing violence pushed “to the outskirts,” as if this reaction was a positive development, al-Arabi confirmed the general content of Malek’s version. “The Syrian government isn’t acting in good faith,” he said, even telling Egyptian TV that he’s receiving “extremely worrying” reports from Dabi.
Thus Malek’s report cannot be as “baseless” as the Sudanese general labeled it.
More than one monitor is also jumping ship, burying the excuse that Malek remained inside during his deployment. New deserters include a Moroccan legal specialist, an aid worker from Djibouti and an Egyptian. Another observer told Reuters that he plans to leave on Friday, saying, "there are some people who are concerned about their safety... Some, from a professional perspective, feel they are not achieving anything." Mousab Azzawi of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights identified 11 more observers as candidates: seven Iraqis, two Kuwaitis and two Emiratis. The group had reportedly witnessed Syrian security open protesters in Deir el-Zour.
These events follow the death of French journalist Gilles Jacquier, who was killed during a grenade barrage in Homs. al-Assad’s regime naturally accused Syria’s National Council (SNC) and “terrorists” of the crime. Oppositional groups would return the accusation, and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe tacitly blamed the regime by announcing, "It's up to Syrian authorities to ensure the security of international journalists on their territory.” Although the League’s monitors aren’t necessary supposed to do anything more than watch, the impression of an untrained and ill-equipped force has poisoned the confidence that their final report will yield political action.
Facing a massive crisis of confidence, the League’s mission will struggle to survive its last week and the potential 30-day extension without an emergency response. Qatar's Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani, told reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "I could not see up until now a successful mission, frankly speaking. We hope we will solve it, as we say, in the house of the Arabs, but right now the Syrian government is not helping us." Washington feels the same way, hoping for Arab solution that comes with the lowest regional price, yet this price is inevitably rising with al-Assad’s destructive behavior.
One League official in Cairo defended the organization’s lack of options, arguing, "This is not a problem with the Arab League. This is a problem with the international system. Who is willing to send in troops? Who is willing to send in a fighting force?... What is this team going to do? This team is not there to stop the violence. It is not there to pull back the military. It is not there to free prisoners. It is to verify. It is not a peacekeeping team.”
The natural barrier of deploying an inexperienced monitoring team into a conflict zone is yielding one overriding conclusion: the military option. Several League officials have acknowledged the possibility in recent days, only to argue that an operation requires 6-8 weeks to mobilize - too long for Syria’s opposition to wait. A political and military campaign can, of course, be organized simultaneously, however the League’s ideal response would maintain control of Syria’s political transition. More understandably, the League’s cumulative militaries seek to avoid al-Assad’s well-trained army in the field. Such a conflict will dwarf the battle against Gaddafi’s ragtag force and potentially draw foreign actors into a regional war.
In Moscow, Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev claimed to possess “information that NATO members and some Arab states of the Persian Gulf, acting in line with the scenario seen in Libya, intend to turn the current interference with Syrian affairs into a direct military intervention.”
This scenario may rest in the relative distance, but it’s also growing closer with each passing death, conspiracy and political breakdown. In fact al-Arabi just told Egypt’s Al Hayat, "Yes I fear a civil war and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war.” Patrushev speculated that “the main strike forces will be supplied not by France, Britain and Italy, but possibly by neighboring Turkey,” adding that Washington and Ankara are currently discussing a no-fly zone. Arab League officials have thrown Pakistan, a country familiar with UN peacekeeping missions, into a potential Arab coalition. These forces would theoretically link with the SNC and Free Syrian Army (FSA) to conduct precise air and ground operations.
At this point Syria becomes too chaotic to predict with any realistic expectation of accuracy, save for the profuse bloodshed of open warfare between al-Assad and his opponents.