Although their country is a founding member of the Arab League, Syrians of all colours, both the opposition and regime, were never too fond of the Cairo-based organisation. The Syrian regime understands its symbolic value of adhering to League resolutions, but realises that the League has failed, almost at every single occasion of its 67-year history, at preventing “undesirable events” from happening in the Arab World. The most recent failures, Syrian officials say, are the 2003 war on Iraq, the 2006 war on Lebanon and the 2011 Nato war on Libya.
Now the League is positioning itself as a credible mediator in the Syria crisis, offering to bring the government and the exiled Syrian National Council for talks at the League’s headquarters in Cairo. That needs to be done within a 15-day grace period, whereas violence needs to stop on the Syrian streets and so do operations of the Syrian Army in different Syrian cities. To date, Syria’s strong ally, Russia, has extended support to the League Initiative.
The street is furious with the 15-day grace period, staging demonstrations last Friday against the League timeframe, claiming that it paves the way for more bloodshed in Syria. The opposition also claims that the League is biased towards Syrian officialdom, and does not want more regimes to fall in the Arab world. For its part, the Syrian government has said that it will accept the League initiative, “with conditions.” Condition I would be for dialogue to take place in Damascus rather than Cairo. Condition II is for talks to take place with the Syrian opposition at large, and not the National Council, which was created in Istanbul last month and which includes the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. As far as the regime is concerned, the Council “does not represent the Syrian street.” Condition III is that operations of the Syrian Army are “not up for negotiations” within the League framework.
Progress in doubt
Another sticking point is that Qatar currently heads the League and is due to supervise the upcoming League ministerial committee that is due to arrive in Damascus on Wednesday. The delegation will include the League Secretary General Nabeel Al Arabi and the foreign ministers of Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Sudan. The Syrian government is saying that Qatar is no longer impartial and has taken sides with the opposition against the Syrian regime. Syrian officialdom is furious, to say the least, with Al Jazeera’s coverage of events in Syria. Then last Wednesday, Qatar announced that it was willing to step down from the League’s ministerial committee, if that made life easier for the Syrians. Because of these two developments, Syria will welcome the League committee this week, but it is highly doubtful if any progress will be made, for the following reasons:
1. The League lacks enforcement measures to pressure Syria, if negotiations reach a bottleneck. The only measure it can take is freezing Syria’s membership in the League, which although symbolic, would not really damage or even hurt the Syrians. Egypt had its membership frozen for an entire decade, right after Camp David, but it eventually turned a new page with the League by the 1990s. Syria can do the same, if need be, although Syrian authorities are certain Arab countries would vote against suspending Syria’s membership, such as Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan and Algeria.
2. The Syrian government is not willing to sit and talk with the National Council, and the Council has said that it will only sit down with regime officials to negotiate exodus of the Syrian regime. Both parties refuse to budge and the League is completely incapable of changing their views.
3. Syria is saying that dialogue in Damascus will take place with “the national opposition” that refused foreign intervention in the Syrian crisis. They point to figures like ex-economy professor Aref Dalilah, former Baathist Hussain Al Odat, and exiled human rights activist Haitham Manaa, who recently shocked the Council by siding with the regime against it, saying that its members are creations of the US, Turkey, and France. Manaa, who remains persona non grata in Damascus, remains one of the most balanced and respected opposition figures in the diaspora. Back in 2003, he visited Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government, hailed as an iconic figure for saying that there will be no Ahmad Chalabis in Syria willing to topple the regime through the assistance of US tanks.
Now he is positioning himself as a moderate yet again, although he was among the loudest of voices in the opposition back in March, when disturbances started in his native Daraa. The Council, which is already being courted by world capitals and Arab ones like Libya, has said that it refuses any dialogue with anybody but the Council itself. Al Odat, who is spokesman of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, welcomed the League initiative as it stands.
Precisely because of the points mentioned above, it is doubtful that the League initiative will fly. Neither side takes the League very seriously, and today, eight months into the crisis, Syria feels it is “back in control” whereas the foreign-based opposition is certain that the regime “is about to fall, any minute now.” There simply is no common ground to build upon between the Council and government on one front, and between both sides and the League, on the other.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus, Syria.