The Arab League has suspended Syria over security forces murdering and torturing thousands of protesters during a months-long uprising, potentially setting the stage for an intervention into the country.
The action by the collection of Arab states against the Syrian regime followed a so-called peace agreement that the Arab League brokered with Bashar al-Assad, which was supposed to end violence by security forces. However, a day after agreeing to the peace deal, Syrian security killed 10 protesters, and since that time Syria has continued to lay waste to the country, killing 250 protesters in 11 days. According to the UN, this puts the death toll at close to 4,000. Over the past few days, protesters have reportedly been fighting back against the crackdown, with army defectors and ordinary citizens challenging the security forces, and taking up arms to defend themselves.
This paroxysm of violence could not have escaped the eye of the Arab League, who thought they brought an end to the bloodshed just a couple weeks ago. So they were forced to react.
The decision to freeze Syrian delegates’ activities stopped just short of full membership suspension. In addition, the Arab League warned of political and economic sanctions, urged Arab states to withdraw their envoys from Damascus, and called on Syrian forces to reject orders to fire on the protesters revolting against President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian rule.
“We were criticized for taking a long time, but this was out of our concern for Syria,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al Thani, who led the committee on Syria, told reporters in Cairo. “We needed to have a majority to approve those decisions.”
The 22-member, Cairo-based Arab League surprised political observers with Saturday’s measures, which went well beyond what anyone had expected from a body long regarded as calcified and toothless. Analysts used words such as “watershed” and “historic” as they parsed the announcement on Twitter.
This matters more than any old coalition rejecting Syria, because it was the Arab League’s suspension of Libya, and endorsement of military action, which spurred the NATO intervention. Time after time, President Obama and other world leaders cited the Arab League’s support as the primary reason for deciding to intervene. In fact, when asked why the West hasn’t intervened in other repressive states which cut down their own people during protests, Obama and others repeatedly said that they didn’t have the circumstances with the Arab League rejecting those other countries.
Now they have that. And with the Libyan conflict officially over, and the Iraq war about to draw to a close from a US military standpoint, I’d at least expect a drumbeat from neoconservatives to engage Syria militarily. A no-fly zone would make no sense here, by the way, because Assad has used security forces and not warplanes to strike at protesters. Here was President Obama’s statement on the Arab League action:
I applaud the important decisions taken by the Arab League today, including the suspension of Syria’s membership, consideration of economic sanctions, and downgrading of diplomatic relations. After the Assad regime flagrantly failed to keep its commitments, the Arab League has demonstrated leadership in its effort to end the crisis and hold the Syrian government accountable. These significant steps expose the increasing diplomatic isolation of a regime that has systematically violated human rights and repressed peaceful protests. The United States joins with the Arab League in its support for the Syrian people, who continue to demand their universal rights in the face of the regime’s callous violence. We will continue to work with our friends and allies to pressure the Assad regime and support the Syrian people as they pursue the dignity and transition to democracy that they deserve.
I don’t know that Obama would have the stomach for yet another military action, regardless of the perceived success of the Libya mission (setting aside the war crimes). The military is likely stronger in Syria than Libya, too, and there’s less strategic significance. But it bears watching.
In particular, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, all members of the Arab League, pushed through these sanctions on Syria. It is in this sense that the Arab uprising is self-sustaining. There are implications for Iran as well. From McClatchy:
“This decision finally kicked Iran out of our Arab nation,” said Abdulla al Athbah, a Qatari columnist for Al Arab newspaper in Doha. “This is for the protection of the Syrian people, but at the same time the result is a message to Assad and Iran that Syrians won’t accept (indirect) rule by the Iranian regime.”
The fact that Syria has allied more with Iran in recent years, and that the Saudis, the main competition for Iran in the region, has basically led the Western response to Arab uprising states, has some import as well. A pro-Assad mob in Damascus attacked the Saudi embassy last night. The Saudi ambassador was withdrawn from Syria back in August.
Only Yemen (itself embroiled in an uprising) and Lebanon (with Iran-allied Hezbollah) voted against the resolution, with Iraq abstaining, pointedly.
At the very least, this alienates Syria from the international community, which could hasten Assad’s fall.