Arab League Gets New Sense of Purpose With Syria Pressure: View

Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Syria’s rejection on Monday of an Arab League plan calling for the country’s president, Bashar Al-Assad, to hand over power was not a surprise, and neither should it be seen as a setback.

Rather, those hoping for an end to Syria’s bloodshed should be heartened that the league, long a cozy club for dictators, has found a new sense of purpose. Assad is nowhere near feeling the sort of pressure on his regime that forced Yemen’s strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to accept a similar deal from the Gulf Cooperation Council in November. Although it will be largely up to the rebels within Syria to make Assad’s seat too hot to remain in, there are several concrete steps the league, the U.S. and the European Union can take to raise the temperature.

The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in November and sent a delegation of observers to verify that Assad would make good on promises to end his regime’s military assaults, which according to the United Nations have killed more than 5,000 people. Assad had no intention of backing down, and the observers proved impotent to stop the crackdown. (The league’s decision on Sunday to extend the mission by a month was ill considered.)

Nevertheless, the league has succeeded in delegitimizing Assad’s rule, in Syria and across the Arab world. Its Syria efforts could be seen as part of a broader emerging consensus -- led by the wealthy Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- that there are red lines that the region’s absolute rulers can no longer afford to cross. The emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has even called for an Arab military intervention in Syria, although he received no support.

Obviously, the Persian Gulf leaders have mixed motives: They, too, were rattled by the Arab Awakening, and feel that peace in Syria might keep the winds of rebellion from gathering more force. We won’t criticize them for doing the right thing, even if it’s out of self interest. Yet they would also be wise to step up their efforts to increase domestic political liberty, along the lines of what King Mohammed VI of Morocco has achieved. Should democracy flourish in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, it will get harder to buy the quiescence of the Gulf-state subjects.

The EU also deserves plaudits for placing an additional 22 people and eight entities on its Syria sanctions list Monday. Over the last eight years the EU and U.S. have sanctioned scores of Syrian individuals and companies associated with the regime, forbidden businesses from trading in Syrian state debt, barred imports of Syrian oil, and frozen the assets of the state security service. More can be done. New York’s two senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, proposed a bill that would block property transactions in the U.S. by Syrians involved in the crackdown and would bar sales of high-tech and telecommunications equipment that could be used for censorship or human-rights abuses.

The U.S could also require federal contractors to certify that they are not involved in sanctionable activity and deny companies that do business with Syria’s energy sector access to U.S. financial Institutions. Although Syria is a minor producer in the global sense, oil exports provide more than 25 percent of its government revenue. The Assad dynasty has always relied on hard currency to ensure the support of Syria’s military and business elite.

Aiding rebels in Syria will be much trickier than it was to in Libya. Russia will resist any tough UN resolutions; in fact, it just reached a $550 million fighter-jet deal with Syria. Syria’s relations with Iran, and its influence in Lebanon and ties with Hezbollah, will raise the cost and complexity of any Western military intervention, even if the U.S. and Europe had the stomach for it. Within Syria, the unrest is scattered and lacks unified leadership -- indeed, two former officers are reportedly in a power struggle to command the Free Syrian Army, a force of about 20,000 deserters from Assad’s military. Still, more humanitarian aid, intelligence and other support could be directed to the rebels through Turkey. It’s a perfect chance for the Saudis and Qataris to back up their words with petrodollars.

One effect of the Arab Awakening has been to spotlight the lack of regional cooperation in the Middle East. As the tyrants fall, the remaining states would be well served to focus on building the diplomatic architecture that has enabled other regions -- Asia, for example, through ASEAN, APEC and other entities -- to address not just security issues but also economic revitalization and the humanitarian crises that are sure to develop in any time of great change. Certainly the growing threat posed by Iran demands a strong collective response. Perhaps, after 67 forgetful years of existence, the Arab League can grow into that unifying role.

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