Jan. 4 (Bloomberg) -- The Arab League has raised questions about its commitment to halting Syria’s deadly crackdown on protesters by putting a Sudanese general with close ties to an indicted war-crimes suspect in charge of a monitoring mission intended to hold the government accountable.
The first 50 members of an envisioned 150-person monitoring group arrived in Syria on Dec. 26. The plan calls for a monthlong mission to ensure President Bashar al-Assad follows through on a pledge to withdraw security forces from cities, release political prisoners and allow demonstrations.
Yet in a concession that may jeopardize the league’s credibility, Sudanese Lieutenant General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, a 63-year-old close associate of Sudan’s President Umar al-Bashir, leads a mission that was whittled down from an intended 500 observers at Assad’s request.
“The league has revealed its inexperience by appointing a crusty military intelligence guy who presumably gets on swimmingly with Assad’s cronies,” said Jeff Laurenti, a United Nations analyst at the Century Foundation, a New York-based research group. “This discredits the league just when it was shaking off decades of always being the doormat of authoritarian regimes.”
Al-Dabi’s mission to Syria didn’t get off to an auspicious start. After he visited the city of Homs, the scene of killings by government forces, the BBC cited him as saying on Dec. 29 that “some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening.”
Moreover, the killing of protesters has continued even under the presence of observers, and snipers are still on the prowl after tanks have withdrawn from cities, according to Nabil el-Arabi, president of the Arab League.
“Yes, there is still gunfire; yes, there are still snipers, and we wish for all these aspects to end,” he said in televised remarks on Jan. 2 addressing the mission’s shortcomings.
At least 49 people have been killed since Dec. 31, many by government snipers, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday. Syria is “far from meeting” its commitments to the Arab League, she said in Washington.
With Russia resisting U.S.- and European-led efforts to seek punitive action against Assad at the UN Security Council, the Arab League remains the best hope for protesters in the 10-month-old conflict that the UN estimates has claimed more than 5,000 lives.
Human-rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have raised concerns that the team dispatched to Syria consists of bureaucrats with little expertise or training in how to uncover and report abuses or get access to military sites where prisoners may have been relocated.
The attitude of delegates seems to be “see no evil, hear no evil,” according to Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.
Also, al-Dabi is a “poor choice” as leader of the group, he said in a telephone interview. “His own role with Sudanese military intelligence and more recently being the point person in Darfur gives him experience in impeding human-rights investigations. He is still on the same side of the fence.”
Elevated to head of military intelligence in Sudan in 1989, al-Dabi was dispatched by al-Bashir a decade later to West Darfur as his personal representative and laid the groundwork for the government’s ensuing crackdown on insurgents. Al-Bashir is accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide in Darfur, the western Sudanese region where civil war exploded in 2003.
Not everyone is critical of his selection. Mahmoud Merei, head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said he spoke to al-Dabi on Jan. 2 in Damascus and that “the criticism against him is baseless and uncalled for.”
“Al-Dabi is a capable military man who is working objectively,” Merei said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It is very hard to judge on the delegation’s performance in a week, but a lot was accomplished, and there is a lot more to be done, like increasing the numbers of monitors. There should be at least 500 of them in all Syria.”
The Arab Parliament, an Arab advisory body, sounded the alarm on Jan. 1 by saying the mission had failed and should be terminated immediately for undermining the body’s credibility.
“The mission of the Arab League team has missed its aim of stopping the killing of children and ensuring the withdrawal of troops from the Syrian streets, giving the Syrian regime a cover to commit inhumane acts under the noses of the Arab League observers,” said Ali Salem al-Deqbasi, the Kuwaiti head of the 88-member parliament, in a statement.
Inspired by a wave of discontent that swept the Arab world and toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the uprising in Syria has now outlasted the one in Libya and may turn even bloodier.
For now, the Arab League may be the only thing preventing that outcome. The State Department’s Nuland said yesterday that the U.S. “was not going to pass judgment on the Arab League mission.”
In exchange for the Arab League dropping plans to submit a proposal to the UN Security Council, Syria agreed on Dec. 19 to let the monitors into the country. The focus may yet shift to the 15-member body, which alone has the power to impose sanctions on the UN’s 193 member states.
On Jan. 7, the Arab League is scheduled to meet in Cairo. Jeffrey Feltman, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, plans to meet with league officials that day, according to Nuland.
The Syrian National Council, which seeks to topple Assad, expects the league to increase the number of observers, according to Omar Idlibi, a member. “We want the additional Arab observers to be specialists, to be provided with logistic tools, and we want them to be neutral, not to be subjected to policies of regimes who help the Syrian one,” he told Al Arabiya television.
Burhan Ghalioun, the SNC leader, told reporters yesterday during a visit to Lisbon that the Arab League mission “remains useful.”
A significant change that may play against Assad has taken place in the Security Council: The Arab seat has passed from Lebanon to Morocco.
Lebanon was constricted in its ability to act against Assad because of the influence the Shiite Hezbollah movement, backed by Iran and Syria, has on its government. With Morocco, a former French colony and a moderate Muslim country, the western powers will have an ally.
An obstacle persists in the form of veto-wielding Russia, which sells arms to Syria and maintains a naval base on its Mediterranean coast. The Kremlin has stuck to its Soviet-era ally, resisting European and U.S. calls to impose sanctions and asset freezes in line with the Arab League’s initiative.
Instead, it caught its colleagues on the council off guard by penning a draft resolution that demanded “that all parties in Syria immediately stop any violence, irrespective of where it comes from.” The text was deemed unacceptable by western powers for failing to place most of the blame for the violence on security forces acting under Assad’s orders.
Under the presidency of South Africa, the council will discuss the amendments made to the draft by its four European nations: Portugal, Germany, France and the U.K. They want the council to “adopt further targeted measures, including sanctions, as appropriate,” according to a draft obtained by Bloomberg News.
The council also wants a flight ban to and from Syria and a ban “on governmental trade transactions with the country, except for strategic commodities affecting the Syrian people,” according to the draft.
European nations have also asked for a travel ban and asset freeze on 19 Syrian officials and an asset freeze on the country’s central bank and the Syrian Commercial Bank.