The past week’s events in Syria have claimed the Arab League as another casualty of Syria’s bloody crackdown. Continuing violence by security forces is showcasing the League’s impotence and irrelevance and dashed any hope that League observers might help stem the bloodshed. According to Syrian activists, the reverse is true – protesters have faced a growing assault since the observers arrived.
Their mission appears to have been designed for failure. With 60 monitors on the ground and another 90 to follow, the number of atrocities is too many and their locations too vast for observers to even scratch the surface. The observers are completely dependent on the Syrian government for transport and security and are unable to speak to victims without tipping off authorities, who have reportedly hidden hundreds of detainees in off-limits military sites. Without unrestricted access to hot spots, the results of any observer mission will lack credibility.
The choice of a Sudanese general to head the Arab League mission underlines why the League’s member states, many with atrocious human-rights records, are incapable of monitoring one of their own. Lieutenant-General Mohamed Mustafa al-Dabi has held key security positions in the regime of President Omar al-Bashir, who is himself wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of committing genocide in Darfur – charges the Arab League has denounced. Appointing the former chief of a military intelligence branch accused of atrocities to head a mission monitoring a peace initiative would be amusing if more than 5,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, had not already died in a vicious nine-month government crackdown and many more lives continue to be at stake.
The League’s lackadaisical approach to monitoring reflects the organization’s ambivalence. Comprised of despots who share much in common with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not least their disdain for the human rights of their respective citizens, Arab League members were reluctant, just until two months ago, to pressure their old friend, Mr. al-Assad, to stop the massacres. Until now, the Arab League has merely lent legitimacy to an illegitimate process and helped prolong the abuses that the Syrian government continues to orchestrate unchecked. If it wishes to salvage what remains of its reputation, the Arab League should replace Lt.-Gen. al-Dabi, assign more observers and stop Mr. al-Assad from manipulating its mission.