Analysis Brief

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The Arab League's Syria Test

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
November 15, 2011


The Arab League has decided to suspend Syrian membership and impose political and economic sanctions starting November 16 if the government of Bashar al-Assad fails to abide by the terms of a November 2 peace deal (al-Jazeera). The Assad regime has continued its crackdown on protesters since agreeing to the plan, killing dozens of activists in recent days. The bloodshed has drawn increasing censure from the region, with Jordan's King Abdullah becoming the first Arab leader to call for Assad to step down (BBC). Syria's foreign minister called the League's decision "a dangerous step," and requested an emergency summit of the regional bloc to discuss the political unrest before the suspension takes effect. The United Nations estimates that over thirty-five hundred people have been killed in the eight-month-old uprising (NYT).

What's at Stake

The Syrian crisis carries significant implications for the power calculus in the region. Mideast expert Joshua Landis describes Syria as the "hub" of an unstable region (PBS), where the collapse of the Assad regime or the outbreak of civil war, "could ignite the flames of revolution, or undermine regimes in the Gulf which are extremely important." He adds that it would be "very enticing" for the United States to support a regime change if there is a revolution.

The Arab League's "unexpectedly strong" (Economist) decision on such a divisive issue has also gained it some credibility; the group has largely been dismissed as irrelevant and "impotent" in the past. Some experts say it might prompt further international pressure on the Assad regime in the form of sanctions. The EU toughened sanctions on Damascus (DeutscheWelle) on Monday, but a UN resolution against Syria remains uncertain (TIME) due to opposition from China and Russia.

The Debate

The Arab League has not requested international military intervention, as they did in Libya, and Western governments remain reluctant to plunge into another of the region's uprisings. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, "There is no UN Security Council resolution, and Syria is a much more complex situation" (Reuters). CFR's Micah Zenko says the international community's "mismanagement and overreach" in Libya has "doomed" the potential for a similar type of humanitarian-based intervention in Syria. NATO's claims of impartiality in the conflict were belied by its actions, he writes in the National, including allowing the rebels to smuggle weapons and operate aircraft in the no-fly zone.

It remains unclear what specific economic and political measures the Arab League will take if the Assad regime fails to comply. Editors at the National urge the League to follow through on its promise, "if that means embargoes on loans, trade, and oil deals," or the recognition of the Syrian National Council as "sole representative of the people." Arab League officials said they plan to send a contingent of five hundred observers to Syria (Reuters), including medical and military personnel, but added that it was "too soon" to recognize the Syrian opposition movement as the legitimate authority.

Policy Options

In this CFR Policy Innovation Memo, Elliot Abrams says the United States should work with its allies to continue isolating the Assad regime from the rest of the Alawite community, and urge Syrian opposition groups to "present a unified face." Western governments, he adds, should encourage leaders within the Syrian military and business community to turn on the regime.

In his testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Andrew J. Tabler (PDF) called for the United States to "prepare for all contingencies," including forming a "Syria contact group," encouraging regime defectors, helping Syrian opposition groups plan for the future, advocating for human rights monitors, preparing for a militarization of the conflict, and pushing for action at the Security Council.

Background Materials:

"Iran and Syria," United States Institute of Peace

"Syria: When is Enough, Enough?" CFR Blog

"Arab League Principles and Precedents," CFR Blog