In isolating the Assad regime, the Arab League risks polarising allegiances – with the potential for escalation
The Arab League has called for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping force to end the bloodshed in Syria. It is a historical irony that the precedent for this – the 1976 deployment of an Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) between Israel and southern Lebanon – was a Syrian initiative and that the ADF was predominantly composed of Syrian troops.
However, there are crucial differences between the situation in Syria now and that in Lebanon in 1976. None of the preconditions for a peacekeeping force exist: there is no ceasefire in place, neither party has given permission for foreign troops to enter the country. Finally, it is not clear who would speak for the disparate opposition forces; no peace negotiations are ongoing and there is no UN mandate. In effect, this means that the latest proposals are unworkable.
Other things are worth bearing in mind. The Arab League does not, for one, have an army. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan sent units to Libya last year, but the exact composition of the proposed peacekeeping force is questionable. What is certain, however, is that if any foreign troops were to enter Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s regime interpreted this as a declaration of war. And Syria has a large, well-trained and equipped army, which is not, as yet, affected by the levels of defection that enabled the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
Nor is it likely that Nato troops would be mandated for such a role given the current political climate at the UN. Earlier this month, in the absence of effective Arab League diplomacy, Russia and China both used their veto to block a security council resolution condemning the Assad regime. United Arab Emirates foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan attempted to rectify this with Monday’s visit to Moscow, where he met with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Lavrov underlined Russia’s insistence that there can be no peacekeeping force without the consent of the Assad regime – which is clearly not forthcoming.
Faced with this impasse, the Arab League – which is dominated by the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia – now says that it will halt all diplomatic and economic co-operation with Syria. Furthermore, they will lend political and material support to the opposition.
While all decent human beings long to see an end to the terror and massacre of the innocents in Syria, is the Arab League agenda limited to this one aim?
In the past, Middle Eastern politics was dominated by Iraq, Syria and Egypt – a situation that ensured a balance of power in the region. Now, Iraq is on the brink of becoming a failed state, Syria faces civil war and Egypt is in transition.
To the current countries in power in the region, the crisis presents itself as an opportunity to weaken the so-called Shia crescent, which takes in Iran, the new Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Sunni Gulf States and Saudi Arabia would prefer to see Syria’s Sunni majority in power – as, of course, would the west, currently engaged in brinksmanship with Iran and anxious to safeguard its future oil supplies.
This is not to downplay the urgency of finding a way to stop Assad from murdering his own people. The international community, through the mechanisms of the UN, need to agree a common stance and identify, through diplomacy, a mutually acceptable plan of action. This might include a face-saving departure package for Assad of the type drawn up for Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh. However unpalatable such measures might appear, they are preferable to most conceivable alternatives.
The problem is that in isolating the Assad regime, the Arab League risks a polarisation of allegiances with the potential for escalation: the sectarian conflict in Syria could extend beyond its borders and into the rest of the region; in the worst-case scenario, we might see a return to a cold-war alignment positioning the Shia crescent, backed by Russia and China, against the Sunni countries, backed by the west.
The past few days have confirmed an unwelcome addition to the chaos in Syria – the arrival of al-Qaida. A recent Iraqi security forces communique warned of Islamic State of Iraq fighters and arms flowing through its northern border, and on Saturday al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a call to arms for international jihadis to muster in Syria.
In a second historical irony, in the event of military intervention in Syria, al-Qaida could find itself fighting on the same side as the Arab League and, potentially, Nato.
The Arab League has damaged its credibility through its handling of the Syrian crisis. It has appeared unable to act effectively, either diplomatically or militarily, without the west. By misjudging and underestimating the Russian and Chinese response to it has demonstrated a reliance on an outmoded paradigm in which Washington always prevails.
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