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The Arab League Doubles Down Against Bashar

February 13, 2012

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The Arab League’s moves against Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime yesterday are striking, coming on the heels of Russia and China’s veto of a Security Council resolution condemning Syria the week before. Rather than back down in light of the international community’s failure to condemn Syria, the Arab League called for even more robust action and backed it up with measures—some symbolic, some tangible—that will increase Syria’s regional isolation and ratchet up the diplomatic pressure on Damascus. Three elements of the Arab League’s call yesterday are noteworthy:

First, whereas the vetoed UN resolution explicitly ruled out military intervention in Syria, the Arab League yesterday crossed one of its traditional red lines and paved the way for a possible non-Arab intervention into a fellow Arab state. Formally halting its failed monitoring mission, the Arab League yesterday called for the interposition of a joint Arab League-United Nations peacekeeping force of three thousand to “supervise the execution of a cease-fire.”

While Syria immediately rejected the call, neither Russia nor China did, indicating that the Arab League may have made an offer that Beijing and Moscow found too difficult or diplomatically embarrassing to refuse in light of Assad’s continued bloodletting. Speaking to a joint conference in Moscow with his United Arab Emirates counterpart Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov asked for “further clarifications” of the Arab League proposal. China, meanwhile, reiterated its support for the Arab League’s efforts while refusing to comment specifically on the proposal. The Arab League’s call has provided new legitimacy to the idea of non-Arab military intervention into Syria, albeit following a cease-fire.

Second, in a major diplomatic blow to Assad, the Arab League openly voiced its support for “opening channels of communication with the Syrian opposition.” While this step is short of diplomatic recognition of the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, the Arab League’s call for “all forms of political and financial support” to the opposition makes clear that the Arab consensus is now putting its backing behind Bashar’s opponents. Establishing this new support to the Syrian opposition came as the Tunisian foreign minister announced that the inaugural meeting of the Friends of Syria group will take place in Tunisia on February 24, suggesting a new boost to the SNC.

Third, in case the new channel to the opposition left any doubt, the Arab League made clear that Assad’s government is not part of the Arab consensus. Having suspended Syria from the body last November, the Arab League further broke from Assad’s government by calling for members to “halt all kinds of diplomatic cooperation with representatives of the Syrian regime in all states and organizations and international conferences.” Already, a number of Arab states have withdrawn their ambassadors from Syria and closed their embassies there.

Yesterday’s move by the Arab League provides a clear Arab call for greater international action against Damascus. It alone will not end the bloodshed in Syria, to be sure. But the steps called for add to Assad’s diplomatic isolation, and potentially tee up follow-on action by the international community. It is now incumbent on other members of the international community to ratchet up the pressure against Assad and his regime in light of Damascus’ ongoing killing and brutality against its own people.