Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 September 2011
Issue No. 1064
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Too little, too late?

Last week's initiative by the Arab League secretary-general to help end the Syrian crisis is expected to fail, reports Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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From top: Bashar Al-Assad (r) meets with Arab League secretary-general, Nabil El-Arabi, in Damascus, Syria, on Saturday; Anti-Assad protesters hold up an Arabic placard reading: "Erdogan, the Syrian people are slaughtered, it's time to turn talk into action," during a demonstration against the Syrian regime, at Maaret Harma village, in Edlib province

On a visit to the Syrian capital Damascus last weekend, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi delivered proposals to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that were agreed on by Arab foreign ministers at an emergency meeting in Cairo on 28 August and that had been hoped might lead to a resolution of the crisis that has been sweeping the country.

However, the proposals are unlikely to succeed, observers said, especially in the light of the regime's continuing crackdown on Syrian demonstrators calling for Al-Assad to step down from power and the chasm that has opened up between the regime and the opposition.

Protesters in Damascus did not welcome al-Arabi's visit, despite the fact that he was supposed to be bringing proposals that could help end the bloodshed in Syria. Instead, demonstrators in several Syrian cities raised banners condemning the visit, saying that the Syrian regime had run out of time and the uprising would not end until the regime fell.

During the visit, El-Arabi held talks behind closed doors with President Al-Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim, and he did not convene a news conference before his departure.

He spoke briefly upon arriving back in Cairo, stating that "there is agreement on steps towards reform" in Syria, without revealing details.

El-Arabi said that he would continue to work "to find an end to the current crisis," emphasising the "need to take action to end the violence and stop the bloodshed among the Syrian people."

The Syrian people had "the right to feel that real and immediate changes are taking place on the ground," he said, adding that Al-Assad had briefed him on "a series of measures and decisions taken by the Syrian government" that were intended to bring these about.

For its part, news sources in Damascus said that Al-Assad had told El-Arabi "not to believe the media deception and incitement that is targeting Syria."

The Syrian president had warned against "false reports that are attempts to sabotage Syria's international image and undermine its security and stability." At the end of the talks, "practical steps were agreed upon to hasten the reform process in Syria," Syrian media sources said, without giving details.

El-Arabi's visit to the Syrian capital was originally scheduled for 7 September, but was postponed one day ahead of the visit "for practical reasons". One Arab diplomat commented that a meeting between El-Arabi and members of the Syrian opposition on the eve of the trip had been the reason for the delay.

On the same day that El-Arabi was in Damascus, 27 civilians were killed by the country's security forces, while army units raided towns and cities in the south and centre of the country.

Several activists were arrested, and the bodies of others were delivered to their families showing clear signs of torture, including the body of young political activist Gheyath Mattar.

At the end of an emergency meeting on 28 August in Cairo, Arab foreign ministers had called on the League's secretary-general to fly to Damascus as a matter of urgency in order to deliver details of an Arab initiative to help end the crisis.

The plan, similar to demands being made by the international community, includes 13 articles, including an immediate halt to the violence in the country, the release of all political prisoners, compensation arrangements for the victims of the violence, and the formation of a national unity government led by a candidate acceptable to the opposition.

The plan also includes proposals for the holding of multi-candidate presidential elections in 2014, the year when Al-Assad's term in office ends.

Damascus rejected the plan drawn up by the Arab foreign ministers, describing it as an attempt to interfere in Syria's domestic affairs. It would consider that the plan "had never existed", it said.

After El-Arabi had announced that he would be visiting Damascus, official sources in Syria said that he would be received in his capacity as secretary-general of the Arab League and not as an official conveying an Arab initiative already rejected by the Syrian regime.

For its part, the Syrian opposition has expressed its division over the plan, with some opposition leaders arguing that it includes positive aspects and others condemning it for legitimising the Al-Assad regime by allowing the president to remain in power until 2014.

One proposal included in the plan suggests the launch of political contacts between Al-Assad and representatives of the opposition, especially the National Coordination Association for the Forces of National Democratic Change in Syria, representatives of the Islamist trend and known national figures.

The country's local coordination committees, which represent activists on the ground, welcomed the Arab initiative, describing it as "a good foundation to help resolve the national crisis." However, the committees also rejected the idea of holding presidential elections in 2014 since this would allow al-Assad to remain in power.

The committees "distrust the regime and its president and do not recognise its legitimacy," a statement said. They also demanded Arab and international guarantees that if the proposals were accepted by the opposition they would be implemented by the regime.

The Syrian people, "who have lost thousands of people's lives and seen many more taken prisoner, will not accept a solution that allows Al-Assad and his intelligence agencies and death squads to continue to overshadow their lives," a committee statement said.

The National Coordination Association, representing the majority of the democratic opposition parties, also welcomed aspects of the proposals, stating that they would help "prepare the transitional period when Syria will move towards becoming a democratic and pluralist state having the rotation of power".

The Association called on the Arab League for assistance in bringing about "Syria's peaceful move towards democratic rule and the immediate halt of the policies being implemented by the Syrian regime, as well as avoiding the catastrophe of possible foreign military intervention."

However, despite the welcome given by some elements in the opposition to the Arab League proposals, other elements have roundly rejected them, as have some demonstrators.

Instead, these elements have demanded that the League suspend Syria from membership in the organisation and ask the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, referring the regime to the International Criminal Court for investigation into crimes against humanity.

Haytham Al-Maleh, a lawyer and head of the opposition National Salvation Congress, said that El-Arabi had "returned empty-handed" from his visit to Damascus, pointing to "the killings that took place on the same day as his visit and the deployment of tanks inside and around Syrian cities".

Arab mediation efforts at ending the crisis in Syria come amid disagreements among western countries on the need to take action against the Syrian regime.

Russia and China continue to reject sanctions against the regime or interference in the country, trying instead to foster dialogue between the regime and the opposition.

It is not only elements within the Syrian opposition that have criticised Arab League mediation efforts. Other observers say that the time for reform was over months ago.

While the proposals could have been valuable had they been put forward in the first or second months of the uprising, six months later and without any party responsible for their implementation other than the Syrian regime itself, they are completely unacceptable.

They Arab League proposals will fail, such observers say, as did the earlier Turkish proposals, which were similar to the Arab initiative.

While the US and Europe have been striving to isolate the Syrian regime, Turkey, the Arab League and Russia have been trying to give it opportunities to reform itself.

However, Damascus has so far turned down these attempts, and it seems that the Syrian regime intends to continue to use violence in its suppression of the protests, ignoring initiatives that do not comply with its policies.

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