The Arab League Takes on Syria: Part 2

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In a dramatic turn of events, and following weeks of frustrating diplomacy, the Arab League decided last week to suspend Syria’s membership. More measures are expected to follow, including possible sanctions and further diplomatic isolation. The Syrian government and its allies have responded with harsh criticism of the Arab League, accusing it of being an instrument of Western powers. Regardless of the motivations of the Arab League, many commentators feel the way forward has suddenly become more treacherous.

Among the Syrian governmental institutions, the news was understandably received with protest. According to the Syrian daily Cham Press, “During a session chaired by Speaker Mahmoud al-Abrash, the People’s Assembly…affirmed that the Syrian people will rally behind its leadership and adhere to its just cause, and that the people’s reaction to the resolution on Saturday shows its awareness of the threats against Syria. The members stressed the need for the People’s Assembly to act quickly to clarify the truth of what is happening and present Syria’s viewpoint in a transparent and rational matter and take initiative to find a way to deal with the current situation and emerge from the crisis. They noted that the Arab League’s decision to impose political and economic sanctions was pre-prepared in order to eventually lead to foreign interference.”

In neighboring Iran, the news media focused on signs of popular support for the Assad regime. For example, Tehran Times notes: “Tens of thousands of Syrians have demonstrated in support of President Bashar al-Assad following an extraordinary Arab League decision to suspend the country’s membership for alleged rights violations….According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), millions of Syrians demonstrated in Damascus, Aleppo, Tartous, Lattakia, Sweida, Hasaka, Daraa, Raqqa, Deir- Ezzor, Homs, Hama and Idleb in support of the Assad government. The participants in the demonstrations said that the Arab League was used as a tool for conspiring against Syria after all the other attempts failed because of the unity of the Syrian people and leadership.”

Likewise, the other Iranian news agency, Press TV, reported on rumors of divisions in Jordan over the latter’s vote in favor of suspending Syria: “Jordan’s vote in favor of suspending Syria from the Arab League has reportedly created a rift among Jordanian government officials. According to Arab media reports, senior members of Jordan’s Foreign Ministry have slammed the order made by the Arab League which calls on member states to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus. A Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman has allegedly called the decision non-binding and that any Arab country can choose not to follow such orders.

Iraq, another neighbor of Syria, chose to abstain from the Arab League vote. That, however, has not shielded the Maliki government from criticism. The Iraqi Islamic Party, according to Aswat Al-Iraq, “criticized today the governmental abstention on Arab League resolution to suspend Syrian membership in the League, expressing astonishment on Iraqi dual policy. In a statement, copy received by Aswat al-Iraq, the party expressed concern and astonishment on the Iraqi stand, pointing out that the party stands with the Syrian people to regain its freedom and self-determination. Iraqi foreign minister Hoshiar Zebari defended the Iraqi government stand as ‘right, independent and courageous’ and negated the news of Iraqi material assistance to the Syrian regime.”

Nor do pundits in Iraq agree on what caused the Iraqi government to abstain. As another Aswat Al-Iraq report suggests: “The Iraqi abstention on the Arab League suspension of Syrian membership was done for fear of Iranian wrath….[An]other analyst said that the decision reflects internal Iraqi political division. Analyst Hadi Jalou Mar’i told Aswat al-Iraq that the Iraqi stand tries to find a sort of balance between U.S. and Iranian powers in the region, so ‘Iraqi stand was as holding the stick from the middle’….On the other side, political analyst Dr.Sardar Qadir, Sulaimaniya University, told Aswat al-Iraq that the abstention vote reflects the state of division in Iraqi internal front. He pointed out that the Sunni sect and the Kurds support the Syrian uprising, while the powers supporting Iran want the stay of the Syrian regime, which is a basic ally to Iran.”

The reaction of commentators and editorials from the Gulf dailies, however, is quite complementary of the decision taken by the Arab League. UAE’s The National editorial congratulates the League for finally finding “its footing in Syria crisis,” adding: “On Saturday, the Arab League made one of its strongest statements since it was formed in 1945. The suspension of Syria’s participation, over the objections of several of the League members, was somewhat expected; the promise of sanctions and diplomatic isolation, however, shocked not only the regime in Damascus….given the difficult choices and unrelenting bloodshed, the Arab League made the right decision. It should follow its promise on sanctions with action. If that means embargoes on loans, trade and oil deals, the regime will be hard pressed. And the League may recognize the Syrian National Council as the sole representative of the people.”

For the Peninsula newspaper, the League’s decision amounts to, “A historic decision…. Rarely has the Arab League acted firmly and up to the expectations of the Arab street on an issue of immense importance. Looked at from this stereotype image, the decision of the pan-Arab body yesterday to suspend Syria over its failure to end the bloodshed caused by brutal government crackdowns on pro-democracy protests is a historic one….The League had few options except to take the extreme step of suspending Damascus because the government of Bashar Al Assad had flagrantly reneged on the promises it made to the Arab body when it agreed to the peace deal….The deal’s failure had damaged the standing of the pan-Arab body, which has largely remained on the sidelines as revolutions rumbled across the Middle East this year.”

The Saudi newspaper Arab News believes the message is quite clear:  “It is time for Assad to go…. The Arabs have watched in alarm and at times in helpless outrage since the Baathist regime in Damascus unleashed a reign of terror and unprecedented brutality against its own people but could do little save pass resolutions and issue earnest appeals urging restraint and dialogue….Syria’s junta hasn’t merely lost all moral right to govern the country — if it ever had one — it must now face international justice for its crimes against humanity….Syria’s moment of reckoning has nearly arrived and justice will catch up with all those soon who thought they could get away with murder. But then this is what many a mighty ruler in the neighborhood thought, and look where they are today.”

For others, the Arab League decision still leaves the ball in Assad’s court. The Khaleej Times editorial, for example, opines: “The Arab League has done the needful by suspending Damascus’ membership, and unequivocally castigating it for alleged human rights excesses. The question is, will President Bashar al-Assad follow suit and order his uncanny administration to behave?…The League’s demand to halt violence and sending back troops into barracks is legitimate enough. Assad should have faith in the political process that he says he has initiated and his overtures to the opposition in and out of the country be made workable….The ball is still with Assad and he has one of the rare opportunities to evolve a new working relationship with his own people and the regional allies….Damascus should give an ear to reason before it is too late.”

And yet some are not convinced that the membership suspension will do much to force Syria’s hand. The Lebanese Daily Star concedes: “The Arab League’s decision over the weekend to suspend Syria from attending its meetings have raised eyebrows — it is the harshest rebuke from the organization to date — but it is unlikely to raise hopes….Doubtless, the move by the Arab League over the weekend will have some nominal effect on the solidity of the Syrian government. It has left it as regionally isolated as it has ever been and pulls the rug from underneath previously supportive superpowers such as Russia and China. But it is hardly likely to be anything close to sufficient. After all the brutality and broken promises, the rapidly approaching deadline set by the Arab League is not cause to be optimistic on Syria. Seven months of appalling wrongs are unlikely to be righted in four days.”

Finally, there are others that are concerned about what a cornered Assad will do. As Hurriyet Daily News’ Yusuf Kanli writes: “The Syrian regime, though the economy of the country is already reeling under the weight of sanctions from a web of Western sanctions, including Turkey, will still manage despite the Arab League move in finding ways of survival with the help of political and economic allies in Iran and further east….Yet, no one should think for one moment that Syria might be another Libya….Indeed, from the ‘Kurdish card’ to the ‘Hezbollah card’ or the ‘sectarian card’ the regime in Syria has many ‘regional’ and ‘intra-Arab’ cards on hand….If Syria explodes, this entire region may explode. If those who make plans with the assumption that Assad will be another Qadhafi and Syria another Libya don’t wake up from such utopias, I am afraid soon we will all start talking about an even graver situation.”

 Asharq Alawsat’s Tariq Alhomayed wonders whether “the Syrian army [could] walk in the footsteps of its Tunisian counterpart which expelled Ben Ali, or the Egyptian army which refused to stand with Mubarak against the people? Which path will the Syrian army choose?…Thus, should the Turks begin the implementation of the buffer zone, and dissenting Syrian army officers and individuals find a safe haven there for them or their families, then the Syrian army will be shaken, and may go on to mobilize [with the people]. This would avoid what happened to Saddam Hussein’s army, a lesson which the Tunisian and Egyptian armies benefited from, where they managed to maintain their respective military institutions, and the fundamental structure of the state.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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