Syria’s Moment of Truth at the Arab League

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As Arab League Foreign Minister’s meet today, the organization has some decisions to make concerning the situation in Syria. The League, on October 17, finally demanded an end to the violent crackdown of the Assad regime against largely peaceful protestors and the start of a national dialogue between the regime and opposition to be held under its auspices. A special ministerial committee led by Qatar has subsequently been pushing a four point plan to Assad that demands the withdrawal of security forces from the streets, the immediate release of prisoners held since February, permits the Arab and international media to bear witness to what is going on in the country and to start a dialogue with the opposition.

The Assad regime’s response has been predictable: sow confusion, attempt to buy time and if that does not work, change the subject. Facing a 24 hour deadline to respond, the regime announced on Syrian State TV that it had reached agreement with the League and was waiting for a final approval from Cairo. Further rumours were circulated by the Algerian Foreign Ministry to whom its counterparts had communicated the “Syrian response.” In fact, there has been no official Syrian response as the Arab League has confirmed no agreement. Instead, Assad has signaled that he is open to dialogue with the opposition and will in the near future release prisoners. Confusion still reigns—because Assad wants it to—on whether he is agreeing to the proposed dialogue in Cairo and whether he will accept a new two-week deadline to get it started. He has also made his own demands, namely to demand that the opposition drop its weapons, that Arab countries stop funding these weapons and also end their media campaign against Syria.

These tactics should not work—no, not this time. It is time for the Arab League to hold the Assad regime to its four central demands. In particular, if a dialogue with the opposition is possible at this stage, it should be held outside Syria where the regime can not intimidate genuine opposition figures. Furthermore, for the dialogue to be credible, it is likely that it would need to discuss the transition to a democratic post-Assad future in Syria.

In the event that Assad will not agree to the four demands, as is likely, or not even respond, the Arab League should move to suspend Syria’s membership. Within the League itself, as the past few months of feeble action show, suspension will not be easy. In particular, autocracies in Algeria and Yemen and predictably, the government in Lebanon are resisting such a move. Iraq is also hesitant given the influence of Iran on its politics.

However, Arab leaders have to understand that there is an overwhelming majority of their publics—some 90%—who are siding with the protestors in Syria as a recent poll by the Arab American Institute confirms. The daily carnage in towns throughout Syria captured on mobile phone footage, which appears within hours on Arabs satellite channels has turned them against the regime.

More than 100 protestors have been killed since the League made its demands to add to the more than 3,100 killed since the start of the uprising in February. If the Arab League does not back up its own demands and once again gives Assad the time to evade his responsibilities, it will not only be the Syrian regime which will be blamed for the deaths of potentially thousands more people in Syria. For the sake of its credibility, it is time for the Arab League to act.