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.
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.
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.