Divisions in Arab League hobble efforts to resolve Syria crisis

 

McClatchy Newspapers

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."

Jordan wouldn't support sanctions against Damascus, the report added, because more than 60 percent of its imports from Europe arrive via Syria.

Another important neighbor, Lebanon, already is feeling tremors from the crisis, with a spate of deadly clashes between pro- and anti-Assad gunmen. The sectarian-tinged bloodshed in Syria only calls to mind Lebanon's own 15-year civil war. But as the home of the militant, Assad-allied Hezbollah organization, Lebanon "is never going to endorse action against Syria," Akl said.

Still, there are some formidable blocs in the camp calling more boldly for regime change and formal recognition of Syrian opposition leaders. Some even hint at a willingness to send arms to the Free Syrian Army, the shadowy rebel force made up mostly of defectors.

Leading the charge against Assad are Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Sunni Muslim-ruled nations that see his close ties to Iran's Shiite Muslim theocracy as a barrier to their agenda of regional and sectarian supremacy. The irony in entrenched, oil-rich monarchs demanding reforms of a neighbor hasn't gone unnoted; Assad mocked them in a speech, saying they had "no history, no tradition" of democracy.

Gulf leaders watched nervously last weekend as two Iranian ships passed through the Suez Canal en route to a Syrian port in what was widely reported as a show of force by Tehran.

Meanwhile, transitional countries such as Egypt and Tunisia are pushing for tough dealings with Assad because they want to re-establish their legitimacy in the Arab world after forcing out their own autocratic leaders, Akl said. Libya, which is still reeling from last year's ouster of Moammar Gadhafi, was the first country in the world to recognize the Syrian National Council, the main opposition coalition, as Syria's legitimate authority.

Then there are countries, most notably Iraq, that appear unsure of how to respond to the mounting death toll across the border in a way that guards their own interests but doesn't isolate them from the international community.

The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad fears that a war next door will disrupt its own efforts to tamp down the sectarian unrest that's been the country's primary source of violence since U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003.

Over the weekend, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said in an interview that Syria was still invited to an Arab summit in Baghdad if the Arab League's suspension of its activities didn't prevent it from attending, according to news reports.

Maliki was quoted as saying that Syria's presence at the summit would open "a page of dialogue away from interference and sectarian atmospheres . . . there is no benefit to anyone if the situation in Syria gets worse."

After its failed, now-defunct observer mission, the Arab League is keen to redeem itself in the role of chief interlocutor among parties involved in the crisis. Its hopes lie in a proposal whose boldest demand is a joint U.N.-Arab peacekeeping mission. Assad has rejected the idea, however, and even were he to accept it, there are few who think that Arab countries would participate.

Excluding the Syrian army, only four Arab militaries — Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco — have significant experience in international peacekeeping operations. The Egyptian army, however, is preoccupied with trying to govern Egypt's tumultuous post-Hosni Mubarak transition, while Jordan is thought to be reluctant to become involved for fear that its troops would find themselves battling al Qaida-affiliated extremists who could carry their fight into Jordan.

The UAE already has troops with the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan, while Morocco has soldiers with the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.

That leaves Friday's summit in Tunisia as the best hope for the discovery of a new way forward on Syria. Tunisia's foreign minister has said that Russia and China were invited, but there was no immediate word on whether they'd attend.

China appeared to warm toward the Arab League this week, with reports in Chinese state media that Beijing now supports the Arab peace proposal but wouldn't back any plan that would lead to military intervention.

Russia, however, showed no signs of softening its stance, and a diplomat reached by phone said Moscow wasn't convinced that Assad was facing a nationwide popular rebellion rather than the small, disruptive "terrorist groups" that Syrian state media portray.

Andrei Baklanov, Russia's former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said Moscow had long and valued ties to Assad's government, for which Russian contractors built infrastructure and many other "industrial enterprises." The countries also have a history of intermarriage because of the worker exchanges, he added.

Baklanov said neither the Arab League nor foreign powers such as Russia could afford to make major decisions on Syria based on "photos in a newspaper." He said the Arab League must first expand its observer mission to "give us a clear-cut opportunity to understand the whole picture."

Baklanov said league members must put aside their differences and work together, as well as with Assad's last remaining supporters, namely Russia, China and Iran.

"The events have gone too far, and we must combine effort so as not to give the opportunity for the extremists to prevail," Baklanov said.

(McClatchy special correspondent Omnia Al Desoukie contributed to this article.)

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