NEO – Arab League is out of its League in Syrian Fiasco

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Syria's empty seat - after it was booted out
Syria’s empty seat – after it was booted out

Arab League is out of its League in Syrian Fiasco

… by  Seth Ferris, with  New Eastern Outlook, Moscow

 

The seven golden domes of St. Petersburg, with a touch of moon
The seven golden domes of St. Petersburg, with a touch of moon

[ Editor’s note: Seth Ferris is back with a review of the latest Arab League conference, something usually covered in American media in headlines only.

It is a difficult group to follow with all the unfamiliar names and the overkill of grandeur when their various subjects are going back to being tent Arabs, even if as refugees.

The three-ring circus of Israeli internal politics is easily surpassed by the Arab League as they have so many more players, and knives.

From alleged democracies to full blown autocracies, they are one people united by a common language and separated by everything else. The historical term I guess would be tribes.

But, one of their new peculiarities is being sponsors of terrorist brigades with the enthusiasm usually reserved for football clubs. This has no effect on anyone’s continued membership.

Syria, on the other hand, found itself quickly booted out of the Arab League as part of a well-orchestrated isolation campaign which was thought would contribute to Assad’s quick demise. It didn’t. The cure became worse than the illness, and the Syrians have hunkered down. One thing that Arabs should know a bit about is Arab determination and resilience.

But, I cannot honestly be too hard on them in relative terms. When comparing them to our own US Congress they look… not too bad. Yes, some of them are up to their eyeballs in terrorism in the Mid East, but so is the US.

The classified Congressional report that is slowly leaking out is a huge scandal. Our editorial tweak about the “War on Terror” being a “War of Terror” was not just a joke. We knew some of the reality but not all. It was worse than even we had thought… Jim W. Dean ]

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–  First published  March 31, 2014  –

 

Ban-Ki Moon
Ban Ki-Moon

According to conventional wisdom, the UN and regional bodies are supposed to be at the cutting edge of trying to prevent and resolve conflicts. They must be supported to fulfill that role, as when they fail to do so, innocents suffer.

All this however assumes that the bodies everyone thinks should be acting as honest brokers are actually interested in doing so.

In February the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2139 on Syria. This was intended to ease suffering and provide relief from the “chilling darkness.” However, the same body later described the outcome as only a “modest step forward.”

Consequently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attended the Arab League summit in Kuwait on 25th March and told this important regional body that there is going to be no military resolution to the ongoing Syria conflict, now in its 4th year. He said that “it can only be resolved through a political solution,” thus demanding that the League help him provide this.

The Arab League might be supposed to have a vested interest in resolving the crisis in Syria, as pan-Arabism is one of the founding principles of the Baath Party which has long ruled it. If Syria fails, the Arab League fails. However the League has shown neither the ability nor the inclination to do anything of substance. It has not even paid “lip service” to resolving the crisis or addressing the damage it is doing to the region and its member states.

Events in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and other regional states have once again exposed the League’s lack of direction and competence. There are several indications however that the League wanted it this way.

This is particularly disturbing when we realize that the only two regional alternatives to Arab League leadership are submission to foreign powers, whose agendas will inevitably primarily serve their own interests, and takeovers by Islamic networks, who find it much easier to identify what they will oppose, by any means possible, than what they will replace it with.

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The Lack of direction of the Arab League

The latest Arab League summit began on 25th March. Syria’s membership of this body was suspended in 2011 following the government crackdown on protestors but last year the opposition were granted Syria’s seat. This time the seat was vacant, but the National Coalition, the foreign-backed group still struggling to overthrow the Syrian government, was allowed to send representatives.

Kuwait’s Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah addressed the opening ceremony by urging closer ties between Arab states. “This summit is being held in difficult circumstances regionally and internationally. So it’s very important to stand united and coordinate our policy for the sake of regional prosperity and security.”

Interestingly however Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to fund and arm the opposition in Syria, Iraq continues to support the Assad government, and no attempt has been made to develop an Arab League policy on the Syrian conflict, whether arms and funding should be given to one side or another, etcetera.

Such summits do much of their business outside the main hall, but the main topics on the public agenda were the Palestinian issue, Syria and Egypt. Predictably, Ahmad-al-Jarba, the head of the National Coalition, was an early speaker. He said that leaving the Syrian seat vacant was giving Assad the go ahead to continue his “killing spree.”

The man is entitled to his opinion, but allowing him to be an opening day speaker when you have not invited the legitimate government of his country makes him a de facto representative of Syria who is also not the representative because he is not allowed to sit in Syria’s seat.

In what capacity can the League therefore address his comments? Should it take a position on an opinion expressed by a non-member when there is no way of obtaining a response from the member it concerns? If not, why was this non-member allowed to speak?

As a cosmetic exercise to satisfy world opinion, giving Al-Jarba the floor was a clever move, but when the region is crying out for a policy response which would end the human suffering this action left the League with no way of delivering one.

Legitimacy and neutrality Arab League summits have long been regarded as useless by journalists and diplomats operating in the region. What they are expected to produce differs from person to person, but their sole function seems to be acting as a showcase for the Arab world.

This might achieve something if the member states could decide what the Arab world is and what it wants to say, but failure to develop a common policy on any of the ongoing conflicts in their countries which are, in effect, the showpiece of the Arab world as they are the aspect of it which garners the most international attention has left the people the League claims to represent with nowhere to go.

The Arab League was originally set up to be a “level playing field”, but has proved one sided on key issues, especially in recent years, caving into the interests of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which in turn align with American interests. It is made up of independent Arab States in the northern and north-eastern part of Africa and southwest Asia.

However its member states contain significant non-Arab populations who have been forced into dependency situations native Africans of various kinds, Christian minorities (which include ethnic Arabs, but not Arabs in the political sense in which the League uses the term), etcetera, and makes no pretense of representing the interests of these elements of their populations.

Thus the legitimacy and neutrality of the Arab League have always been questionable and are becoming increasingly so. It continues to show a remarkable unwillingness to act as a neutral mediator between Arab states, which it maintains are united by common concerns and heritage, or help resolve the internal conflicts of those states. It is therefore throwing these states into the arms of their biggest foreign protector or the Islamist groups which propound a set of values most of the population respect.

This, apparently, is the League member states’ definition of what being an Arab is. But if someone disagrees, where can they go? If Arab unity is merely a dream or a slogan of convenience, can there be any alternative to this mutual self-destruction?

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Reasons Behind the Silence

Arab League
Arab League

The supine nature of the Arab League’s response to the crises in its member states is not simply a product of each member selling itself to the highest bidder. The basic weakness of the League is the idea behind it.

It was possible to construct the European Union because its six original members all had long individual histories and a heritage of interrelating as independent nations. Arab states are mostly 20th century foundations, whose common heritage is tied up with their various colonial pasts rather than their independent histories.

Furthermore, Western European states generally change their governments by election rather than revolution and are expected to be pluralistic. Arab states do not have the same characteristics. Consequently a revolution or civil conflict in an Arab country is not seen as a crime against the state but against one part of it, the part which is monopolizing power at that time. Whether a revolution is good or bad depends on who you happen to like, that week, there is little recognition of the concept that the state is a higher value than one side of a conflict or another.

Therefore the Arab League merely confirms who is in power by giving them a seat at its meetings. Those forces then demonstrate their power by supporting their friends in other countries, whether government or opposition, because they can do so.

Getting involved in regional conflicts demonstrates to other countries that you are also a member of the Arab League, able to copy the others who are demonstrating they must be taken seriously. The more conflicts there are, the more opportunities there are for League members to show they are worthy of that title.

On only a few occasions since its foundation in 1945 has the Arab League spoken with one voice, such as during the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Arabs versus non-Arabs, a conflict Arab states wish to pretend does not exist in their own countries) and the oil embargo back in 1972 (though even then individual members did their own deals with the West). But is it naïve to expect that if the Arab League continues to exist, and claims to represent people, it should attempt to give practical assistance to those people?

What wasn’t said at the summit? As the Kuwait summit last week did not actually say anything, beyond a mealy-mouthed joint declaration which was the usual random assemblage of dictionary words, highlighting what it did NOT say is the way to discover its real message.

With regard to Syria, Dr. Theodore Karsik has pointed out, “Syria’s problems and individual pleas from the Syrian opposition and the Saudis for help went unheeded, illustrating that the Arab League, when it comes to tough issues, is a debate club as well as a house.

It did not say yes to the opposition, having given it the floor, so the summit was effectively saying that it is not going to involve itself in the conflict because it is not impressed by the claims of either side. Tell us something we all want to hear, the League has told both the opposition and Assad.

But what could that possibly be? In all the conflicts in the Arab world, internal and external, different Arab League members take different sides to show they have the same right to be members of the club. Even if the combatants in Syria said, “we will share power so that each of our sponsors can govern part of the country” this would not be acceptable, because it would provoke rebellions of disaffected groups, all of whom have similar sponsors, in every Arab state.

The only solution would be the abject surrender of Syria to non-Arab rule. This would unite the League against a common enemy; give it a reason to exist. It would also mean that it is a principle of the Arab League that its members should resolve the internal problems of the League, rather than the other way round.

But hasn’t it always been this way? The Arab League has always been out of its league doing the job it pretends to do. It has never defined what Arab peace, Arab politics, Arab diplomacy and Arab values are, so has made no attempt to defend them. As has been said of Canadians, the Arab League states don’t know who they are but only who they are not. The eternal conflicts in and between them are desperate attempts to find an enemy rather than build a new future where no enemy is needed.

The people of Syria can’t expect the Arab League to resolve the crisis there, even though the rest of the world might expect this. However they might be taking a perverse pride in reinforcing its own self-image. When the League fails to act, the sponsors of each side will say “We told you so,” and the detractors of the Arab world will say “We told you so.”

The Arab League will say, “So what? Don’t you keep telling us that we are part of the Third World, and can’t survive without you? If you want us to be the Arab League, do you expect any different?”

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”

Editing: Jim W. Dean and Erica P. Wissinger

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