End the Farcical Arab League Mission in Syria

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Anwar Malek’s damning indictment of the Arab League observers mission to Syria as a “farce” – of which he formed part – reaffirms the misgivings of a number of participants whose stance ran contrary to the balanced party line of the mission’s leader, Sudanese General Mohammed al-Dabi.

Privately, some observers had complained about the lack of logistical support, the persistent interference and deception of the Syrian authorities (who had been assigned to guard them), as well as about how insecure they themselves felt. In a mission with many flaws, we must ask firstly: how could independent observers do their work in an environment of constant intimidation? This question was implicitly posed on Wednesday as a pro-government mob in Lattakia attacked an observer group, slightly injuring three of them.

Despite the Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi’s assurances, it was clear that the League had been negotiating with Syrian authorities – negotiations, which have given them license to delay action, and buy further time for a brutal crackdown. The situation on the ground now increasingly resembles a civil war. Valuable time has been lost, and that delay – facilitated by the Arab League – has led to a more violent situation in the country. While renewed efforts are being made by activists inside and outside the country to maintain the peaceful character of the protests, there is a growing demand to provide more support to armed rebels within localities.

Some countries within the League have turned a blind eye and allowed the regime to get away with this. Others however, notably Qatar and the UAE have pointed to the mission’s weaknesses and the obstruction of the Syrian authorities. The outcome of last Sunday’s meeting reflected the worst aspects of the body. Even in the face of mounting evidence of egregious violations of human rights and possible crimes against humanity, it has been unable to find decisive unity.

Instead the group settled for the lowest common denominator, issuing a vague call for increasing the mission’s numbers and strengthening it’s technical capabilities, perhaps through seeking the assistance of the UN. It seems the inter-governmental nature of the League was too directly translated to the observer mission, which was made up not of the most experienced human rights practitioners available, but rather of delegations from each member state.

With the latest attack on the observers, League officials have conceded that any further increase in observers would depend on the situation in Syria. “Farce” may not capture the depths to which this effort is falling.

Yet there are worrying signs that some within the League, including its Secretariat, will try to maintain the mission’s usefulness. Malek’s testimony points to the poor nature of reporting from the mission’s leaders. Their interim report delivered last week tries to equivocate between the actions of the regime and those of the opposition in a way that simply is not borne out by any evidence. Its next report, due on January 19 when the League meets again will again be rightfully scrutinized for its objectivity and comprehensiveness.

Elements within the Arab League have also tried to make the case that the mission is about observing and not implementing the League’s agreement with the Syrian regime. If so, its objectives have been badly flawed. This is clear in the fact that their observations have coincided with an escalation in the rate of the regime’s killings, as reported by the UN, which has said that 400 have been killed since the observers arrived. The regime’s actions have proven that it was simply unwilling to implement the deal in good faith. Assad, fearing that a withdrawal of troops would have resulted in mass anti-regime protests nationwide, has instead vowed to use an “iron fist” to put down the protests.

While it is important to open space in Syria to allow for the international scrutiny that has been requested by UN human rights bodies and the media, it was clear that this mission was never going to achieve that.  Instead, the mission has succeeded in paralyzing the Arab League. The League must now recognize that it has failed, and refer the case to the UN Security Council.

Bashar al-Asad’s latest speech at Damascus University and his appearance at a public rally soon after reinforces the view that the current mission has done immense harm. What we heard was a defiant Asad – perhaps emboldened by the failed brokerage of recent weeks – who believes that standing firm in the face of adversity is the best course of action. This was a lesson previously taught to him by his father, Hafez Al-Assad, and probably reinforced today by the tight family circle around Bashar. However, his confidence shows how Bashar is dangerously out of touch with the reality in his country, and unfortunately, so is the Arab League mission.