CAIRO — The Arab League's sharp internal divisions over how hard to push for regime change in Syria are hampering its ability to lead negotiations toward resolving the crisis, analysts said Monday.
The United Nations is looking to the Arab League to lead talks on the next international step to address the bloody, nearly year-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
So far, however, the Arab envoys hardly make a united front, and those internal rifts make it unlikely that the group can press forward on demands for tougher sanctions on Syria before the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China earlier this month vetoed a resolution condemning Assad's violent crackdown.
"There are now three classifications of Arab states: those that are pro-democracy (revolutionaries), those that support democratic reforms and the rest who aren't happy with any changes," said Ziad Akl, a political analyst and professor at the American University in Cairo. "This dynamic movement never before existed in the Arab League, and it explains its reaction toward Syria."
The Arab League's division comes as two key events play out this week.
On Friday, Tunisia will host the first "Friends of Syria" gathering, which is expected to draw representatives from the United States and its European and Arab allies to plot their next move. It's billed as an important counterweight to the vetoes from Russia and China.
Then on Sunday, Assad's regime will hold a nationwide referendum on a new constitution. Syrian opponents to Assad and their Arab supporters, mainly the Persian Gulf states and transitional nations such as Tunisia and Libya, consider the vote a feeble attempt to appease the public and buy a little more time for a president whose immediate ouster has been demanded by much of the world.
But the referendum also might provide a few Arab nations — Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq, for instance — with the evidence they need to argue that Assad is serious about reforming and allow them to back off from supporting an increasingly armed opposition movement about which little is known.
Those countries have said they're unhappy with the violence against demonstrators, but they have yet to recall their ambassadors from Damascus, seek U.N. peacekeepers or join the calls for Assad to step down.
"The Arab League is no longer a league and it's far from being Arab, as its name suggests, since it asks the Security Council to intervene against one of (the league's) founding members, and calls upon NATO to destroy the resources of Arab countries," the Agence France-Presse news agency quoted Algerian State Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem, the president's personal representative, as saying in a radio interview Sunday.
Jordan, too, has refused to withdraw its ambassador from Syria. Jordan claims that 78,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan from the uprising, including 30,000 who entered in the past five months alone, according to Jordanian news reports, a number that's much higher than the U.N. estimate of 10,000. An unidentified senior official was quoted Monday in the newspaper Ghad, which often reflects government thinking, as saying that the government was fearful of "a surprise rise in their numbers, as was the case with Iraqis who'd fled the American occupation."