The Arab League’s economic sanctions against one of its own members – Syria – are a welcome and remarkable departure from its previous policies. The Syrian government’s violent repression of many thousands of its citizens is not likely to end quickly, but this is the first time that the league has taken practical steps to protect the people of one of its member-states against their own government.
In 1979, the league suspended Egypt for entering into a peace treaty with Israel (a state of affairs of affairs that lasted until 1989). But there were no consequences from the league, for example, in 1982, Hafez al-Assad, the previous Syrian president, ordered the massacre of several thousands of people in the city of Hama, or when the Algerian government ruthlessly suppressed an Islamist opposition in the 1990s.
This year, both Libya and Syria were suspended (Libya has been restored), but the league’s sanctions against Syria have set a new precedent, which implicitly asserts something resembling the United Nations’ responsibility-to-protect doctrine.
It is true that Iraq abstained from voting on the sanctions resolution, and does not propose to comply with it, and that Lebanon “disassociated” itself from the measure. This raises the prospect of a grouping of nations occupying a wide swath of Muslim-majority nations, from Lebanon to Iran. But the combination of Western and Arab sanctions will cause severe inconvenience to Syria.
The last straw for the league’s members appears to have been the reneging by President Bashar al-Assad’s government on an agreement to allow league observers into Syria.
The motives of the majority of the members of the Arab League who have approved the sanctions against Syria are undoubtedly mixed. The salutary upshot, however, is that the league, despite its large undemocratic membership, has taken a stand that favours democratic protest and the well-being of the peoples of Arab countries.