Dec 6th 2011

Dubious Dealings: Syria and the Arab League

by Sharmine Narwani

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies.

The ongoing diplomatic tug of war between Syria and the Arab League took an unexpected turn Monday with rumors of a potential breakthrough. A positive outcome would signal a major political - not procedural - change of heart at the Arab League, whose earlier dealings with Syria showed little room for compromise.

Last week, the Arab League broke with its own charter for the second time this year, voting to impose far-reaching economic sanctions on member-state Syria, eight months after backing a no-fly zone over member-state Libya.

The charter, which was written in the early post-colonial period, placed great stock in the inviolability of “a state's independence, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.”

Article V of the League’s charter clearly stipulates: “Any resort to force in order to resolve disputes between two or more member-states of the League is prohibited. If there should arise among them a difference which does not concern a state’s independence, sovereignty, or territorial integrity [my italics], and if the parties to the dispute have recourse to the Council for the settlement of this difference, the decision of the Council shall then be enforceable and obligatory.”

A recently-departed senior Arab League official told me: “We have taken strong measures before only in relation to foreign policy issues or disputes between Arab countries. But on these last two occasions, this is a historic departure in relation to the practice of the Arab League. For the first time measures were taken against an Arab country because of its internal situation – the way a government is treating its own people.”

He continued, “When people are dying I don’t care about reconciling this with the charter – that’s my priority. If there are legal issues that contravene, I’m happy to bend them.”

But what about the tens of thousands of civilians slaughtered in member-state Somalia this year alone, with nary a peep from the Arab League? Or of the League’s non-intervention policy in Yemen and Bahrain, where protests continue to this day?

So why did the League single out Syria for sanctions?

Ostensibly, it is because Damascus refused an Arab League observer mission to Syria, but that is not exactly true. The Syrians counter-proposed a series of amendments to the mission “Protocol” to accommodate their sovereignty concerns. It was the League that rejected these outright on November 27, although they appear to have reopened negotiations quietly in the past few days.

Consider this: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – now effectively at the helm of Syrian issues in the Arab League - spent seven months negotiating an exit for the despotic Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh.

When asked about double-standards in the treatment of Syria versus other Arab member-states, the recently-departed senior League official admitted, “I think the position taken by the Arab countries in relation with Bahrain is a very sad one – we should have been more firm.”

On Yemen however, his response was curious, “Yemen – it is being handled by the GCC, and doesn’t need the Arab League’s help right now.”

But the same players refused to spend even seven days on Syria. The League dropped the sanctions gauntlet a mere three days after Syria offered its amended proposal, claiming these would “affect the core of the document and would radically change the nature of the mission.”

But is that true? Would Syria’s amendments sink the project as some League members alleged?

Much ado has been made about Syria's amendments in Arab League statements, but other than a brief reference to a couple of provisions in Al-Hayat newspaper, these have not been made public.

Below is a much more comprehensive outline of Syria's counter-proposal obtained from a well-connected, non-Syrian source. There is little in the document that could not have been negotiated to accommodate both Syria’s desire to maintain sovereignty in this process and the Arab League’s determination to carry out its mission:

Syria’s Amendments to the Arab League Monitoring Mission (November 2011)

Clause I

“An independent mission is to be formed, composed of Arab military and civilian personnel nominated by Arab states and organizations involved in human rights and the provision of protection to civilians, to be sent to the Syrian Arab Republic. It will be known as the Arab League Monitoring Mission and operate within its framework. It is assigned with monitoring implementation of the Arab plan for resolving the Syrian crisis and providing protection to Syrian civilians.”

Syrian amendment:

“An independent Mission is to be formed, composed of Arab military and civilian personnel nominated by Arab states, to be sent to the Syrian Arab Republic. It will be known as the Arab League Monitoring Mission and operate within its framework. It is assigned with monitoring implementation of the clauses of the Arab plan for resolving the current crisis in Syria. The Syrian side will be provided with a list comprising the names, status, ranks and nationalities of the Mission’s members.”

Clause II

“The Mission will start work immediately after Syria signs this Protocol. It will initially dispatch a delegation consisting of the Head of the Mission and an adequate number of monitors (between 30 and 50), supported by an appropriate number of administrative staff and sufficient security personnel to provide personal protection to members of the Mission.”

Syrian amendment:

“The Mission will start work immediately after Syria signs this Protocol. It will initially dispatch a delegation consisting of the Head of the Mission and an adequate number of monitors, supported by an appropriate number of administrative staff.”

Clause II – Subclause

“The number of monitors will be determined by the Head of the Mission, in consultation with the Secretary-General, in accordance with his assessment of the Mission’s requirements to perform its task of monitoring the Syrian government’s compliance with its commitments to protecting civilians in the fullest manner. The Secretary-General may call on technical assistance and observers from Arab, Islamic and friendly states in carrying out the tasks assigned to the Mission.”

Syrian amendment:

“The number of monitors will be determined by the Head of the Mission, in consultation with the Secretary-General and in coordination with Syria, in accordance with his assessment of the Mission’s requirements in performing its task of monitoring the Syrian government’s compliance with its commitments in the fullest manner. The Secretary-General may call on technical assistance and observers from Arab states in carrying out the tasks assigned to the Mission.”

Clause III, Subclause 3

“To verify the release of those detained due to the current events.”

Syrian amendment:

“To verify the phased release of those detained due to the current events who were not involved in crimes of murder or acts of sabotage.”

Clause III, Subclause 4

“To confirm the withdrawal and evacuation of military and armed forces from cities and residential areas which witnessed, or are witnessing, demonstrations and protests.”

Syrian amendment:

“To confirm the withdrawal and evacuation of military and armed forces from cities and residential areas.”

Clause III, Subclause 7

“The Mission will have full freedom of movement, and the freedom to make whatever visits or contacts it considers appropriate, in relation to matters pertaining to its tasks and modus operandi with regard to the provision of protection for civilians.”

Syrian amendment:

“The Mission will have full freedom of movement, and the freedom to make whatever visits or contacts it considers appropriate, in relation to matters pertaining to its tasks and modus operandi, in coordination with the Syrian side.”

Clause IV, Subclause 2

“Access and freedom of movement will be granted to all members of the Mission to all parts of the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic at the times specified by the Mission.”

Syrian amendment:

“Access and freedom of movement will be granted to all members of the Mission in coordination with the Syrian side.”

Clause IV, Subclause 5

“To guarantee that no person, or member of their family, will be punished, harassed or compromised — in any form whatsoever — as a result of having contact with the Mission or providing it with testimony or information.”

Syrian amendment:

“To guarantee that no person will be punished or subjected to pressure — in any form whatsoever — as a result of having contact with the Mission or providing it with testimony or information.”

In addition, the Syrian government wanted the following two points added to the Protocol:

1.“This protocol is valid for two months from the date of signature, renewable with the consent of both sides”

2. “The Syrian government will not incur any financial costs as a result of the Mission performing its task.”

If some of these provisions were problematic, the Syrian authorities seemed willing to find a possible compromise. When Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem contacted Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby a few months back, it was “to try to gain some time to find a way out of this crisis,” according to a Syrian source.

A senior Arab League official who would not speak on the record, claims that the Syria initiative was steered away from its original form by “some of the ministers who didn’t like the direction and started dictating certain ideas that they knew Syria would not accept.”

Qatar, whose Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani chairs the Arab League’s committee on Syria, could have produced a more constructive outcome, if it wished.

Instead, says the official, the “Protocol” to create a League observer delegation was forwarded with an “ultimatum” in a short time, which we have never experienced in the history of diplomacy at the Arab League.

Why not do this right? This is needed not only for Syria – why not a plan for everywhere in the region?”

“The whole process was meant to gain a refusal, to move to the second stage of this game,” warns the official.

What is this next stage? Al-Thani himself may have offered that answer when he hinted that the League could seek international intervention “if the Syrians do not take us seriously.”

Nobody is guiding the Arab League’s actions today more than this one-man Qatari show.

Qatar stands out as the one Arab nation to have formulated a proactive plan to deal with these revolts. It has thrown money, clout and military force behind ensuring desirable outcomes. So far its goal appears to be two-fold: backing Islamists to replace secular regimes, and thwarting the influence of all other competing regional power centers while it goes about its plans.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, its long-term rival in the Persian Gulf, the tiny Emirate kingdom is not trying to thwart change at all. Rather, it is proactively leading a selective strategy to remake the wider Middle East in its own image.

The Arabic-language press was agog with the tongue-lashing Al-Thani delivered his Algerian counterpart at a Syria-related Arab League meeting on November 12:

“Stop defending Syria because when your turn comes you may need us!” he allegedly roared at Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci when the latter registered an objection.

Yet the Qatari PM managed to feign regret in public when he announced last weekend, “Today, we are very sad to hold such a meeting as the Syrian government has not signed the observer mission.”

The League needs to start as it means to continue. Consistent, lawful and devoid of double standards.We are witnessing a dangerous willingness in the global political elite to circumvent rule of law, territorial integrity and sovereignty to jostle for positioning in the new emerging Middle East order.

Tolerating aerial bombardment of civilians by foreign forces and dragging the body of a deposed head of state through the streets are an indication of creeping lawlessness – much of which appears to be tacitly accepted by the “international community.”

This is unquestionably a new era in the Arab League. The organization is being thrust into a regional decision making role – without any history of competence or effectiveness - during a time when the Arab world is experiencing seismic shifts. Is the Arab League capable of rising to this challenge? Or will it remain an institution that rubber-stamps the policies of its most powerful members?

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACT: "That said, even if Europe were to improve its deterrence capabilities, it would be unwise to assume that leaders necessarily make rational decisions. In her 1984 book The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman observes that political leaders frequently act against their own interests. America’s disastrous wars in the Middle East, the Soviet Union’s ill-fated campaign in Afghanistan, and the ongoing war of blind hatred between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, with its potential to escalate into a larger regional conflict, are prime examples of such missteps. As Tuchman notes, the march of folly is never-ending. That is precisely why Europe must prepare itself for an era of heightened vigilance."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACTS: " Nathan Cofnas is a research fellow in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His research is supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. He is also a college research associate at Emmanuel College. Working at the intersection of science and philosophy, he has published several papers in leading peer-reviewed journals. He also writes popular articles and posts on Substack. In January, Cofnas published a post called “Why We Need to Talk about the Right’s Stupidity Problem.” No one at Cambridge seems to have been bothered by his argument that people on the political right have, on average, lower intelligence than those on the left." ---- "The academic world will be watching what happens. Were the University of Cambridge to dismiss Cofnas, it would sound a warning to students and academics everywhere: when it comes to controversial topics, even the world’s most renowned universities can no longer be relied upon to stand by their commitment to defend freedom of thought and discussion."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Word has been sent down from on high that there is room for only “good stories of China.” Anyone who raises questions about problems, or even challenges, faces exclusion from the public sessions. That was certainly true for me." ----- " But my admiration for the Chinese people and the extraordinary transformation of China’s economy over the past 45 years persists. I still disagree with the consensus view in the West that the Chinese miracle was always doomed to fail. Moreover, I remain highly critical of America’s virulent Sinophobia, while maintaining the view that China faces serious structural growth challenges. And I continue to believe that US-China codependency offers a recipe for mutually beneficial conflict resolution. My agenda remains analytically driven, not politically motivated."
Apr 11th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The insurrection began just after 8 p.m. on November 8, 1923, when Hitler and his followers burst into a political rally and held the crowd hostage. ---- The Nazi attempt to seize power ended the following morning, ---- After two and a half days in hiding, Germany’s most wanted man was discovered ----- Hitler was charged with treason, and his trial began on February 26, 1924. ---- .....the judge, having found Hitler guilty, imposed the minimum sentence....That miscarriage of justice was facilitated by the trial’s location in the anti-democratic south, and by the role of the presiding judge, Georg Neithardt, a conservative who was happy to allow Hitler to use his court as a platform to attack the Republic. ----- Like Hitler in 1924, Trump is using the courtroom as a stage on which to present himself as the victim, arguing that a crooked 'deep state' is out to get him."
Apr 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "If Kennedy’s emphasis on healing suggests someone who has been through “recovery,” that is because he has. Following the trauma of losing both his father and his uncle to assassins’ bullets, Kennedy battled, and ultimately overcame, an addiction to heroin. Like Kennedy, Shanahan also appears to be channeling personal affliction. She describes grappling with infertility, as well as the difficulties associated with raising her five-year-old daughter, Echo, who suffers from autism," ----- "Armed with paranoid conspiracy theories about America’s descent into chronic sickness, loneliness, and depression, Kennedy has heedlessly spread lies about the putative dangers of life-saving vaccines while mouthing platitudes about resilience and healing. To all appearances, he remains caught in a twisted fantasy that he just might be the one who will realize his father’s idealistic dreams of a better America."
Mar 18th 2024
EXTRACT: "....the UK’s current economic woes – falling exports, slowing growth, low productivity, high taxes, and strained public finances – underscore the urgency of confronting Brexit’s catastrophic consequences."
Mar 18th 2024
EXTRACTS: Most significant of all, Russia’s Black Sea fleet has suffered significant losses over the past two years. As a result of these Ukrainian successes, the Kremlin decided to relocate the Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland. Compare that with the situation prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when Russia had a secure lease on the naval base of Sevastopol until 2042." --- "Ukrainian efforts have clearly demonstrated, however, that the Kremlin’s, and Putin’s personal, commitment may not be enough to secure Russia’s hold forever. Kyiv’s western partners would do well to remember that among the spreading gloom over the trajectory of the war."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "As the saying goes, 'It’s the economy, stupid.' Trump’s proposed economic-policy agenda is now the greatest threat to economies and markets around the world."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "Russia, of course, brought all these problems on itself. It most certainly is not winning the war, either militarily or on the economic front. Ukraine is recovering from the initial shock, and if robust foreign assistance continues, it will have an upper hand in the war of attrition."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "...... with good timing and good luck, enabled Trump to defeat [in 2016] political icon Hillary Clinton in a race that appeared tailor-made for her. But contrary to what Trump might claim, his victory was extremely narrow. In fact, he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes – a larger margin than any other US president in history. Since then, Trump has proved toxic at the ballot box. " -----"The old wisdom that 'demographics is destiny' – coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte – may well be more relevant to the outcome than it has been to any previous presidential election. "----- "Between the 2016 and 2024 elections, some 20 million older voters will have died, and about 32 million younger Americans will have reached voting age. Many young voters disdain both parties, and Republicans are actively recruiting (mostly white men) on college campuses. But the issues that are dearest to Gen Z’s heart – such as reproductive rights, democracy, and the environment – will keep most of them voting Democratic."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACTS: "How can America’s fundamentalist Christians be so enthusiastic about so thoroughly un-Christian a politician?" ---- "If you see and think outside the hermeneutic code of Christian fundamentalism, you might be forgiven for viewing Trump as a ruthless, wholly self-interested man intent on maximizing power, wealth, and carnal pleasure. What your spiritual blindness prevents you from seeing is how the Holy Spirit uses him – channeling the 'secret power of lawlessness,' as the Book of 2 Thessalonians describes it – to restrain the advent of ultimate evil, or to produce something immeasurably greater: the eschaton (end of history), when the messiah comes again."
Mar 1st 2024
EXTRACT: "The lesson is that laws and regulatory structures are critical to state activities that produce local-level benefits. If citizens are to push for reforms and interventions that increase efficiency, promote inclusion, and enable entrepreneurship, innovation, and long-term growth, they need to recognize this. The kind of effective civil society Nilekani envisions thus requires civic engagement, empowerment, and education, including an understanding of the rights and responsibilities implied by citizenship."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "Despite the widespread belief that the global economy is headed for a soft landing, recent trends offer little cause for optimism."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACT: " Consider, for example, the ongoing revolution in robotics and automation, which will soon lead to the development of robots with human-like features that can learn and multitask the way we do. Or consider what AI will do for biotech, medicine, and ultimately human health and lifespans. No less intriguing are the developments in quantum computing, which will eventually merge with AI to produce advanced cryptography and cybersecurity applications."
Feb 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The implication is clear. If Hamas is toppled, and there is no legitimate Palestinian political authority capable of filling the vacuum it leaves behind, Israel will probably find itself in a new kind of hell." ----- "As long as the PLO fails to co-opt Hamas into the political process, it will be impossible to establish a legitimate Palestinian government in post-conflict Gaza, let alone achieve the dream of Palestinian statehood. This is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. But it serves Netanyahu and his coalition of extremists just fine."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACTS: "According to estimates by the United Nations, China’s working-age population peaked in 2015 and will decline by nearly 220 million by 2049. Basic economics tells us that maintaining steady GDP growth with fewer workers requires extracting more value-added from each one, meaning that productivity growth is vital. But with China now drawing more support from low-productivity state-owned enterprises, and with the higher-productivity private sector remaining under intense regulatory pressure, the prospects for an acceleration of productivity growth appear dim."
Jan 28th 2024
EXTRACT: "When Chamberlain negotiated the notorious Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, The Times did not oppose the transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany without Czech consent. Instead, Britain’s most prestigious establishment broadsheet declared that: “The volume of applause for Mr Chamberlain, which continues to grow throughout the globe, registers a popular judgement that neither politicians nor historians are likely to reverse.” "
Jan 4th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Another Trump presidency, however, represents the greatest threat to global stability, because the fate of liberal democracy would be entrusted to a leader who attacks its fundamental principles." ------"While European countries have relied too heavily on US security guarantees, America has been the greatest beneficiary of the post-war political and economic order. By persuading much of the world to embrace the principles of liberal democracy (at least rhetorically), the US expanded its global influence and established itself as the world’s “shining city on a hill.” Given China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, it is not an exaggeration to say that the rules-based international order might not survive a second Trump term."
Dec 28th 2023
EXTRACT: "For the most vulnerable countries, we must create conditions that enable them to finance their climate-change mitigation" ........ "The results are already there: in two years, following the initiative we took in Paris in the spring of 2021, we have released over $100 billion in special drawing rights (SDRs, the International Monetary Fund’s reserve asset) for vulnerable countries.By activating this “dormant asset,” we are extending 20-year loans at near-zero interest rates to finance climate action and pandemic preparedness in the poorest countries. We have begun to change debt rules to suspend payments for such countries, should a climate shock occur. And we have changed the mandate of multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, so that they take more risks and mobilize more private money."
Dec 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "....if AI causes truly catastrophic increases in inequality – say, if the top 1% were to receive all pretax income – there might be limits to what tax reforms could accomplish. Consider a country where the top 1% earns 20% of pretax income – roughly the current world average. If, owing to AI, this group eventually received all pretax income, it would need to be taxed at a rate of 80%, with the revenue redistributed as tax credits to the 99%, just to achieve today’s pretax income distribution; funding the government and achieving today’s post-tax income distribution would require an even higher rate. Given that such high rates could discourage work, we would likely have to settle for partial inequality insurance, analogous to having a deductible on a conventional insurance policy to reduce moral hazard."