Protesters feel the bullets whiz above their heads - if they’re lucky - as they dodge between streets and allies. Higher above them snaps the fire of international powers as they vie for control of Syria’s potential transition, and finally the deafening cannon of Bashar al-Assad. Despite the Arab League’s generally accepted failure in stopping widespread bloodshed, the bloc’s mission is fulfilling another purpose by gradually breaking down relations with Damascus.
Sadly this dissolution comes with high casualties and increased polarization. The League’s current cycle has been stuck on repeat since November, when the bloc first introduced a transitional initiative to end Syria’s revolution. Last week encapsulated the previous two months: political maneuvering, inconclusive weekend meetings and daily death tolls. Monday began with another reported massacre in the Khalidiyeh neighborhood of Homs. Local activist Omar Homsi claimed that “Syrian security forces fired at protesters after noon prayer,” and that an AL delegation fled the scene without documentation. al-Assad is also amending his tactics to include more crowd-control measures (tear gas, water cannons, and nail bombs).
Syrian activist Amal Hanano submitted a blueprint of Damascus’s “new” gameplan to Foreign Policy: “The observers' arrival changed the rules of the game. The regime sends spies to take pictures of the protesters who dare speak to the observers. Before every excursion, the streets are secured in any way necessary, by bullets or arrests (for the safety of the observers or to preserve what's left of the regime's tarnished image?). The streets of Deraa have to be scrubbed clean of its people, silencing their voices and erasing any sign of dissent, to present an image of control, safely guarded by snipers lurking on rooftops.”
Unsatisfied with Cairo’s conclusion that Damascus “only partly implemented” the League’s initiative - protesters contend that none of the League’s demands have been met - Syria’s opposition launched their latest media offensive to seize the country’s narrative. Pledging to increase the number of monitors from 165 to 200 remains a futile attempt to boost confidence in the League’s mission, given that 1,000 monitors could still be guided by Syrian authorities. Quoting a protester from Deraa, where one AL monitor sparked a furor after spotting or not spotting snipers, Hanano explains how the mission couldn’t visit a funeral because no transportation was available.
Reporting from inside the mission’s media bubble, CNN’s Nic Robertson observed, “the Arab monitors who are here... are largely seen as ineffective. The language that they use, they do not criticize the government here even though the government hasn't met what the Arab League is telling it to do in terms of pulling weapons and troops off the street.”
This pervading lack of confidence has rendered the League’s mission dead in the water, leaving its monitors to float through al-Assad’s carnage until their overview is submitted on January 19th. Syria’s opposition cannot afford to wait another 9 days without any political motion, as time equals lives and the potential for wider conflict. One particular group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has already lost faith in the League’s mission and publicly expressed its intent to attack (with arms purchased from multiple sources) if the UN doesn’t assume observer duties. Most Syrian groups seem to be coalescing around these terms in the absence of new political action and clarification. Rami Abdulrahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, warned against "giving the regime more time to deal with the Syrian revolution.”
"The initial report is too vague, and it essentially buys the regime more time," said Rima Fleihan, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC). “We need to know what the League will do if the regime continues its crackdown in the presence of the monitors. At one point it needs to refer Syria to the U.N. Security Council."
Syria’s Local Coordination Committees (LCC) proposed its demands as follows: "Immediately announcing that the Arab observers have failed in their mission, referring the Syrian file to the UN Security Council, paving the way for imposing a no-fly zone and establishing a safe corridor for protecting the military defectors."
Accordingly, a spokesman for the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC) continues to strike a more optimistic tone, saying the League’s presence has “reinvigorated” Syria’s revolution and “decreased the number of protesters killed.” These points, though true, come with substantial qualifiers. Protesters are massing to prove their existence and dare al-Assad to shoot in front of the League -and he hasn’t blinked. Dozens of dead and wounded have been documented daily since the observers arrived on December 23rd.
“Any talk of foreign intervention is an illusion, the Arab League initiative is the only way forward,” Abdul-Aziz al-Kheir said after meeting with AL Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby in Cairo.
Ideally, Syria’s opposition must reach a compromise before the League receives its full report. However the middle ground might have been destroyed by al-Assad’s bombardment, and closing the schism between the NCC and SNC, LCC and FSA essentially requires the NCC to cede its position. The NCC may feel more comfortable with UN oversight if Syria’s other networks can provide guarantees of political leadership, a task that the SNC has failed to accomplish. Somewhat reassuringly, SNC spokeswoman Basma Kadmani argued, "There is no major difference on foreign intervention... we have agreed on a joint formulation of what foreign intervention means and how it should come about if it were to come about."
Regardless of their alignment, counter-proposals from every network must be shared and ready for immediate broadcast.
The possibility of UN intervention has created a parallel gap within the Arab League, applying considerable friction to its relations with al-Assad (which may benefit the opposition by accelerating a transfer). Al Jazeera counts Elaraby as a believer in his own mission, explaining his close relations with the NCC. Meanwhile the “anti-Assad” capitals, led by Qatar, are giving him ammo to criticize the League’s mission and potentially shut it down on his terms (another potential accelerator to the UN).
"If the report comes out saying the violence has not stopped, the Arab League will have a responsibility to act on that," Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told a news conference in Cairo.
With the League’s mission set to continue relatively unchanged, al-Thani’s statements cut to the short-term endgame. Perhaps some benefit will be produced if the monitors return with reams of evidence and a complete picture to report, and if al-Assad’s non-compliance results in punitive action. Yet al-Thani, tough as he acts, has issued similar warnings for months. al-Assad shouldn’t be too concerned if Qatar poses his biggest threat. After al-Thani urged the detached dictator to “take a historic decision,” Syria’s Permanent Representative at the Arab League blasted him for “speaking on behalf of the Syrian people.”
al-Assad drowned out his officials on Tuesday with a hard-line, two-hour speech at Damascus University: “The Arab League failed for six decades to protect Arab interests. We shouldn’t be surprised it’s failed today.”
Blaming Western powers, the Arab League and “hundreds of media outlets” for instigating their revolution could form the glue that sticks Syria’s opposition together. Claiming that “external conspiracy is clear to everybody” sounds like a natural bond, and any skeptic of al-Assad’s violent mania should realize that he has no intention of ceding power. “We will declare victory soon” equates to a death sentence (al-Assad says no orders were given “for anyone to open fire on any citizen”). As the situation currently stands, the Arab League and Western powers have yet to break from al-Assad’s regime and his Eastern connections. However these counter-revolutionary forces are drifting away from each other, necessitating unity amongst Syria’s pro-democracy movement.
“The divisions are getting bigger, and I think we can expect the situation here - at the moment, stable - to deteriorate in the future,” Robertson concludes. “That's the direction it's going in.”