January 21, 2012

Syrians Face Another Month of “Monitoring”

Cairo’s arena is set for another battle royal on Sunday, when the Arab League will convene to discuss its endangered mission in Syria. As Bashar al-Assad continues to direct his lethal crackdow
n with precise choreography, the League must choose between keeping its monitors in place and transitioning to a new strategy. This political orientation pits League members against themselves, al-Assad’s regime, Syria’s pro-democracy movement and international powers.

Since the Arab League is incapable of functioning as a neutral organization or appeasing all involved parties, who will be selected for priority status?

The League’s mission has yielded a minor split in Syria’s opposition after producing an disproportionate ratio of risk and reward. Facing a shortage of options from the international community, some protesters and activists appear to favor the League’s presence in the absence of substitute measures. Their position is understandable given al-Assad’s blackout prior to the League’s arrival; select Western journalists have accessed to the monitors’ media circles. Those protesters who already lost faith in the League’s mission agree that urban demonstrations are escalating. The minority and majority share common ground, viewing the League as a deceptive but manipulatable tool.

However current reports and rumors indicate that oppositional protesters should brace for another round of disappointment. Arab officials are holding their line - "the killings are less, the protests increase” - as the League considers extending its mission under Sudanese General Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi. Although chaired by Qatar’s Foreign Minister (the Gulf state has vocalized support for a peacekeeping mission), multiple League sources are predicting an indecisive outcome to Sunday’s meeting. One official told Reuters, "The closer Sunday's meetings of the Arab committee and the Arab foreign ministers get, the more the conviction grows that the Arab monitoring mission in Syria should be extended.”

"Yes, there is not complete satisfaction with Syria's cooperation with the monitoring mission. But in the absence of any international plan to deal with Syria, the best option is for the monitors to stay."

The League is prepared to stand on this defense until someone knocks it off. Counter-arguing at face value proves unrealistic; the international consensus that spearheaded Libya’s intervention is lacking in Syria. Arab and Western states remain divided on how to pursue intervention, and unsure of Russia and Iran’s military intentions. General Knud Bartels, head of NATO's Military Committee, also continues to downplay the possibility of intervention, saying, "There is no planning and we are not thinking about an intervention.” This rhetorical false front is calculated to avoid provoking al-Assad, but the center contains a large kernel of truth.

The inescapable danger of this reasoning lies in protracting Syria’s revolution; both the Arab League and Western powers prefers to remove al-Assad “at the lowest cost,” an approach that favors his survival. One official said the League’s “presence offers assurance to the people because the observers can spot any violations,” but protesters report numerous incidents where AL monitors refused to meet them or ignored the regime’s atrocities. The official added, “If there is a decision to extend the mission of the observers, we are ready to send more monitors after training them in three days.” Three days of training are vastly insufficient for the task at hand, and the League’s mission would still be undermanned at 300 monitors.

"Without the correct tools, without the correct authority … we can't do the job," said one observer who requested anonymity. "Which is sad because people are dying on both sides every day."

Arguing a reduction in Syria’s casualties slides down the same slippery slope of relativity. While large-scale massacres have temporarily subsided, daily bloodshed indicates that al-Assad has no intention of halting his crackdown. He’s simply finding new ways to disguise his forces, suppress demonstrations and cover up deaths. Building on UN estimates and local sources, estimates range near 600 since the League’s first monitors landed in late December; Saturday’s death toll swings between 30 and 100. Activists now fear another vicious crackdown in Zabadani, located roughly 20 miles northwest of Damascus, after Syrian forces withdrew to the town’s perimeter.

Mohammed al Dais, of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, predicted that Damascus was waiting until after the Arab League’s meeting to attack. In the meantime Zabadani is being spun as a “hub of resistance,” where several hundred soldiers from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are fighting to save their defected comrades from prison. Their intent to rally so close to the capital is sure to attract an iron-fisted response.

The Arab League argues, “there is a conviction even among Syria opponents that the extension is better than withdrawal,” when the street opinion demands that Syria’s case be referred to the UN Security Council. Syria’s National Council (SNC) gradually withdrew to this position after greeting the League’s monitors with hesitant approval, while the FSA has openly criticized their presence as an enabler to al-Assad’s crackdown. Extending the League’s mission with superficial improvements may provide long-term gains for the opposition, but the League’s short-term position hardens Syria’s status quo.

The underlying flaw of the Arab League’s policy remains a lack of confidence; protesters will exploit its monitors out of necessity, but they are widely viewed as pawns on al-Assad’s chessboard. This trust gap casts doubt on the League’s entire mission, from its monitors’ abilities to its opposition against al-Assad’s regime. Another month also provides no time to complete an observer mission. Syria’s view will improve slightly when al-Dabi releases his team’s findings; a harsh report could generate new friction with the regime, but oppositional groups expect a clear-cut report that places full responsibility on Damascus.

"The report must document the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime against civilians in all cities and towns," the SNC said in a statement. "Ongoing human rights violations include direct orders by the regime to kill civilians using snipers, and executions by firing squad, in public squares. The SNC delegation will stress that the report must contain clear language indicating genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed by the regime against unarmed civilians."

A biased report will gnaw away at the lingering hope for accountability.

The Arab League’s monitors may or may not last another month in the field, but the upshot of a failed mission remains unchanged since the bloc introduced its initiative in November. Although al-Assad’s staunch international allies have announced their readiness to block any subsequent proposal, the League’s monitors are guiding Syria towards the UNSC. Here the political battle will intensify as Syria’s armed opposition continues their preparations for a national campaign.

At least one outcome appears guaranteed: the collective international community will confront the possibility of intervention sooner than their ideal deadlines allow.

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