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Arab League Wavers On Sanctions Against Syria

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al Arabi (far left) meets with foreign ministers of the Arab League in Cairo on Nov. 27. The group imposed tough sanctions against Syria at that meeting, but is now wavering when it comes to implementing them.
Khaled Elfiqi
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al Arabi (far left) meets with foreign ministers of the Arab League in Cairo on Nov. 27. The group imposed tough sanctions against Syria at that meeting, but is now wavering when it comes to implementing them.

The Arab League has a reputation for being long on rhetoric and short on action. That's why it was so surprising when Arab ministers approved an unprecedented package of sanctions against Syria at the end of November.

But the unity that produced that vote is falling apart, and a meeting in Cairo to set the terms of the sanctions was suspended indefinitely.

An editorial in a Lebanese newspaper is one sign of the widespread frustration with the Arab League. Under the headline "No Guts, No Glory," the author accuses the league of playing into its reputation as toothless, with the result that more people will die.

The Syrian uprising tops most satellite news broadcasts in the Arab world with grainy images of death and suffering. Syrian activists say the government security forces were responsible for the deaths of 14 more protesters on Friday during demonstrations across the country.

Will the Arab League act? That now seems unlikely.

"It's been two-steps-forward, one-[step]-back diplomacy. It tells you there is still no clear consensus in the Arab League," says Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Center in Qatar.

Ambiguous Support

The new Middle East was on display at an Arab League meeting on Nov. 27. For the first time in its history, the Arab League acted with unity, suspending Syria's membership and imposing tough sanctions unless Damascus agreed to an Arab League peace plan.

They've given [Assad] chance after chance. Every deadline is missed, then they argue over the commas in their documents.

But almost as soon as the vote was announced, Lebanon and Iraq opted out. Jordan complained sanctions would damage Jordan's economy, and Egypt and Algeria pulled their support.

The old Middle East was back.

"Now, when we come to the actual implementation of what they're trying to do on the Syrian case, it's proving to be much more difficult," says Shaikh.

The Gulf states, dominated by Sunni Muslims, have been the most active in pressing Syrian President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite regime.

Once a close ally of Syria, Qatar has taken the lead and canceled high-priced projects in Syria. It also withdrew the ambassador after a Syrian mob attacked the embassy in Damascus.

But even Qatar has not shown a willingness to go the distance against Assad, says Blake Hounshell, an editor of Foreign Policy online who's based in Doha.

"None of the Gulf countries have called for him to step down," Hounshell says. "They've called for reforms; they've called for him to stop killing his people; and they've given him chance after chance. Every deadline is missed, then they argue over the commas in their documents. And they haven't made their intentions clear."

Wary Of Regime Change

It's a sign, says Hounshell, that Syria is complicated. The prospect of regime change is still considered dangerous. Neighboring Iraq is a lesson felt keenly in a week when the region is watching the U.S. pull out.

Western governments have been tightening sanctions against Syria for months. When the Arab League voted for sanctions, too, it appeared a consensus was building that could be led by Arab states. The move won approval with the Arab public, especially in Qatar.

Leyan al-Thani, a 16-year-old high school student, says she can't even watch the Syrian protest videos, where demonstrators are often killed, because the footage is so brutal.

"I don't think anyone should be treated like that," she says. "As a dictator, he should go."

The Arab League seems unlikely to deliver that message for now. For Syrian activist Rami Jarrah, the Arab League missed its chance months ago.

"I think that the situation in Syria has escalated and gone past the level of the Arab League actually doing something," Jarrah says.

Escalation includes almost daily clashes between army defectors and government troops, and an army assault on cities where protesters are particularly active. This has raised fears that Syria is sliding toward a civil war, though activists dispute that analysis. It's not a civil war, they say: It's a revolution that the government is trying to stop.

The Arab League has given Syria until Wednesday to allow observers into the country or else it will likely turn to the U.N. Security Council for action to try to end the deadly violence against regime opponents, Qatar's prime minister said Saturday.

Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani said in Qatar that Arab foreign ministers will hold a "decisive and important" meeting in Cairo on Wednesday to decide on next steps.

He said there is near unanimity among Arab states on taking the issue to the U.N. after Syria demanded changes to the Arab League's proposal for ending the violence.

The Arab plan called for Syria to halt its crackdown and to allow in Arab observers to ensure compliance with the deal. Syria had asked for some amendments regarding the work of the observers.

The 22-member League has also suspended Syria's membership and imposed sanctions, but it has been divided over whether to seek the help of the wider international community beyond the Arab world.

Hamad's remarks after an Arab ministerial committee meeting in Qatar on Saturday indicated that the camp objecting to outside intervention may be getting smaller.

Syria has seen a sharp escalation in armed clashes recently, raising concerns the country of 22 million is headed toward civil war. The U.N. raised its death toll for the Syrian uprising substantially this week, saying more 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt began nine months ago.

Russia began circulating a draft U.N. Security Council resolution Thursday that it said was designed to resolve the conflict in Syria. The draft calls for an end to all violence but does not contain sanctions.

That prompted the Arab League to consider putting forward an initiative of its own for the Security Council to consider, Hamad said at a news conference. He did not provide details.

Hamad said the Arab League wanted to see "that Arab resolutions are adopted rather than those of other nations."

The announcement in Qatar came as an Iraqi delegation arrived in Syria to meet with President Bashar Assad to discuss ways of ending the crisis.

Ali al-Moussawi, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the delegation is seeking to find a peaceful solution "that preserves Syria's unity."

Many Iraqis fear that if civil war breaks out in Syria it could spread to Iraq, its eastern neighbor. Iraqi officials have not given details on the initiative they will discuss with Assad and other officials.

Iraq was one of few countries that abstained from voting in favor of Arab sanctions against Syria.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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