Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Arab League passes buck to Washington

The Arab League gives a tacit but not overt nod for US strikes on Syria, Dina Ezzat reports, while misgivings remain in some Arab capitals

Al-Ahram Weekly

Less than 24 hours after an Arab League foreign ministers meeting offered an implicit nod of approval to possible unilateral US strikes against military and other targets in Syria, to reprimand Damascus for allegedly using chemical weapons against its own people, Israel and the US openly confirmed carrying out joint missile tests in the Mediterranean.

On Sunday, the foreign ministers of the 22 member states of the pan-Arab organisation adopted a resolution that all but opened the door for US strikes to hit what is expected — by most Arab and foreign sources — to be 50 targets, mostly military and some civilian, directly used by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, including some residential services and private use bureaus.

On Sunday evening, the Arab League adopted a resolution that reiterated previous condemnation by the pan-Arab organisation of the Syrian regime for “crimes against humanity” committed against its own people, and held it responsible for the use of internationally prohibited chemical weapons in Syria.

According to press statements by the chair of the meeting, Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, Libyan foreign minister, whether or not the chemical weapons use was ordered by Al-Assad’s regime, responsibility is to be squarely put at the doorstep of Damascus. “It is the responsibility of the state to make sure that these weapons are not used, and the state has to be held responsible if the weapons are used,” he said ahead of the adoption of the resolution.

The Arab League resolution called for “all forms of support” to be committed “for the Syrian people to defend themselves”.

“The Syrian people have been calling on us for help; as Arabs we have to reach out. We tried the political path, but the regime declined to agree. We tried the political path through international channels, but the regime declined again. Now we cannot leave the Syrian people. We call on the international community to move to help the Syrians before this people is completely erased,” Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal said in press statements.

And while the resolution of the Arab League called for “efforts to be exerted towards a consensus within the UN” on the situation in Syria, Al-Faisal lamented that whenever it comes to the Middle East, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is almost always unable to agree on anything — either because the US opposes, or because other powers oppose, an agreement.

Earlier, Russia, which has at the highest level rejected accounts of the use of chemical weapons by the regime in Syria, blocked the attempt of the US to gain a UNSC resolution for military action against Syria. China has also been unhelpful in the face of the US-UK-France demarche.

“This is why the Arab League resolution is important, because it allows [US President Barack] Obama to tell the US Congress that Arab countries, and for that matter Turkey and Israel, are supportive of military strikes,” explained a Cairo-based foreign diplomat.

Following a UK parliamentary knock-back on attempts by British Prime Minister David Cameron to join war efforts against Syria, and with German reluctance followed by firm French opposition to the decision of French President François Hollande to join Obama, the US president and his team are trying hard to lobby congress — which reconvenes Monday 9 September — to authorise a unilateral US strike.

According to Washington-based Arab diplomats, the White House and the US State Department welcomed the Arab League resolution, although they had hoped for tougher language against Al-Assad and in favour of military action.

“The US was hoping for a line that would have said, ‘without firm restraint of the Al-Assad regime, political negotiations would be unlikely to be fruitful’,” said one diplomat. He suggested that both the Saudis and Qataris, each for their own reasons and despite their political rivalry otherwise, had tried but failed to toughen the condemnation of Al-Assad.

Arab League Spokesman Nassif Heitti firmly declined suggestions that the Arab resolution amounted to a green light for planned US strikes, insisting that the position of the Arab League is to demand protection for the Syrian people and to promote a political settlement.

In press statements made Monday, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi categorically insisted that the Arab League offered no authorisation for a strike. “It is only up to the UN Security Council to make such an authorisation under Chapter VII [of the UN Charter],” he said.

The Arab League resolution was adopted with reservations made by both Algeria and Iraq — who had made reservations to a similar resolution adopted a few days earlier at the level of permanent representatives following the news of the “chemical gas attack” — and with some amendments introduced by Egypt to ensure that the final text did not go far too in adopting a language that invites an attack on Syria.

In press statements ahead of, during and after the Arab League meeting, Nabil Fahmi, Egypt’s foreign minister, said Cairo is worried that a military strike would be carried out unilaterally, and that it would inevitably fail to deliver on what ought to be the key objective: a political settlement that “protects the territorial unity and ethnic integrity of the Syrian people”.

“We acknowledge the failure of the Syrian regime to live up to the perfectly legitimate demands of the Syrian people for democracy, social justice and freedoms. We still are convinced, however, that the road to settle the dispute now is through serious political negotiations that we hope will promptly start in Geneva,” Fahmi said.

Last year, a Geneva conference adopted some basic political concepts for a political settlement but fell far short of drafting a blueprint for an agreement due to the determination of Damascus’ regime that whatever deal is proposed, Al-Assad would not step down before the end of his term in 2014. Some factions of the opposition say it is impossible to include Al-Assad or any figure from his regime in the political roadmap for Syria.

The Geneva II meeting, of which UN-Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has long been talking, failed to materialise essentially due to the same sticking point.

In the assessment of Arab and Western diplomats, one more reason that Geneva II has not happened is that Al-Assad has been gaining much strength on the ground; that he is close to defeating the opposition, even now heavily armed, due to the joint efforts of Arab Gulf States and key Western countries, particularly the US and France.

This development is a key factor, Egyptian sources say, in Cairo’s concern over anticipated military strikes.

“It is too late for external military intervention that could have helped the opposition win. A military strike today would probably weaken Al-Assad, which would make him more aggressive, and would aggravate an already acute refugee problem. It would also cause an inevitable fragmentation of Syria, even without fully dividing it, which would allow for additional regional influence in Syria, thus prolonging the tragedy there,” said an Egyptian source.

Egypt is particularly mindful of Iranian and Hizbullah intervention in favour of Al-Assad, while fresh waves of jihadists would be called upon from Afghanistan and elsewhere to join the opposition.


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