The Arab League’s Political Horizons for 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.

The Arab League surprised the world last Sunday by setting a roadmap for a political transition in Syria. Most significantly, the organization called for Bashar al-Asad to step aside and grant power to a deputy and national unity government in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections. On the day that President Saleh finally departed Sanaa for medical treatment in the US, there seemed to be an Arab League consensus that a Yemen-style transition would be the best course of action in Syria. Also, for the first time, the Arab League stated its intention to refer the initiative to the UN Security Council for approval.

The latest developments eclipsed the much anticipated report of the Arab League’s monitoring mission, which now has little or no relevance. While the decision was taken to extend the mission by one month and to double the observers to around 300, its role of pressuring an end to the violence and opening up Syria to regional and international scrutiny has become part of the broader political goal of expelling Asad.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to pull out its observers, charging that the mission has failed to alter Syrian behavior, has, in turn, led to the withdrawal of all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monitors in Syria. With a GCC delegation set to head to Moscow on Thursday, all eyes are now focused on the political track at the UN.  It is likely that in Moscow, the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia will discuss both the Arab League’s “middle political path” as one senior Saudi official described it and how to achieve an “economic horizon” for future Russian gains in the region. The proactive stance spelled out by Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal is in sharp contrast to its past behind-the-scenes efforts to preserve stability and contain regional threats. The Saudis, Qataris, and by extension, the entire GCC have decided that Asad must go, and go quickly.

Predictably, Asad has rejected the Arab League’s proposal, and a statement on state television echoed past claims of violations of Syrian sovereignty, calling the Arab League initiative “a flagrant interference in Syria’s internal affairs.” Indeed, Asad will likely continue his efforts to win hearts and minds, especially in Moscow and Beijing, by making the case that he has already charted a course for a transition to democratic governance. In his last speech on January 10, Asad stressed the need to reform the Syrian government, speaking in particular about a constitution that “will focus on  … the multi-party system and political pluralism,” but also ruled out the possibility of a national unity government. What we must fear is a ratcheting up of the regime’s violence, especially as clashes between the its forces and defecting army troops intensify.

The lack of dissenting statements from Arab League member states suggests a region-wide sea change. Lebanon was the only country that did not approve the plan, while Algeria opposed taking the matter to the Security Council. The fact that Iraq, which has been hesitant to approve Arab League action in Syria in the past, has not back-tracked up until now is significant. It may also signal an Iranian preference for a unity government to take power in Syria. This has been the message that pro-Ahmadinejaad emissaries have recently been sending to the Syrian opposition.

More ominous still for Asad was Monday’s statement from Mikhail Margelov, Chairman of the International Affairs Committee in Russia’s upper house of the Duma and one of the most influential foreign policy thinkers advising the Russian leadership. He was quoted in the state-run Itar-Tass news agency as saying that “(our) veto (of the October 4 resolution) was the last instrument allowing Asad to maintain the status quo in the international arena … it was a serious signal to the president of Syria from Russia. This veto has exhausted our arsenal of such resources.” Notably, Margelov was the last Russian official to meet with Muammar al-Qadhafi before Russia withdrew its veto concerning Libya in the UN Security Council. His statement may be the first sign that Russia’s position is shifting.

The Arab League’s adoption of the “Yemen model” for Syria, rather than the use of force, as in the case of Libya, will not work if there is not an international consensus on how to move forward. Now is therefore the right time to establish an international contact group, perhaps jointly chaired by the Arab League and the UN Secretary-General, which includes key Arab and regional states, particularly Turkey, the United States, Europe, and if possible, Russia and China. With the Asad regime becoming the primary source of instability in Syria and the wider region, it is high time for the international community to work together with the Syrian opposition to ensure the exit of the Asad family from Syria and a post-regime transition. In this regard, newly appointed Arab League and UN envoys should be dispatched to Moscow and Beijing, as well as key Western capitals.

In the days and weeks ahead, diplomacy will play a critical role, as long as it forms part of a principled plan and is executed expeditiously and without hubris. Now is not the time for another confrontation in the UN Security Council or a return to past arguments over Libya or Iraq. For the sake of Syria and the entire region, it is time to banish the ghosts of these episodes. Diplomacy must lead to a political solution in Syria that protects the freedom and rights of all its people after 42 years of brutal Baath party rule. It must also ensure that no power vacuum develops in post-Asad Syria. The Arab League’s plan may provide us with the best opportunity to avoid these scenarios and to chart a political path away from civil war in Syria. We must not waste this opportunity.