The Arab League in Syria: time to embrace defeat?

Two weeks ago, I blogged about the Arab League’s observer mission in Syria, and argued that it was likely to struggle.  And struggle it certainly has.  Last Friday, I wrote a short piece for Foreign Policy summarizing the mission’s numerous woes:

The Syrian opposition claims that the roughly 100 monitors, deployed to oversee the army’s withdrawal from urban areas, have been manipulated and fed disinformation by the government. There have been accusations that the military has used the observers’ presence as a cover for increased violence. Perhaps most notoriously, the League selected a Sudanese general associated with the war in Darfur to lead the mission. The observers, dressed in brightly-colored waistcoats and armed only with digital cameras, often look lost and ineffectual.

In any plausible scenario, the monitors were never going to have a decisive impact on Syria. Although the Syrian government promised that it would halt military operations against civilians in December, few analysts took this promise seriously. A handful of observers were not going to change political calculations in Damascus, especially as they have neither their own guards nor secure communications equipment — leaving them excessively reliant on Syrian assistance to monitor and report anything at all.

But one week ago, it still seemed too early to write off the mission.  Since then, however, the operation has given a very good impression of imploding.  One observer has publicly condemned the mission:

An Arab League official has launched a scathing attack on the regional body’s mission to Syria, claiming it has been powerless to prevent “multiple crimes against humanity” from being committed by troops loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.  Anwar Malek, an Algerian member of the team, said the observer mission was becoming a farce. He said it was not acting independently and was serving the regime’s interests.

And even the Arab League’s top man sounds defeatist:

The Arab League chief has cast further doubt on the delegation his organisation has sent to monitor the crisis in Syria, describing ongoing violence as “very worrisome” and saying the mission was not going to plan.

Even the Syrian government hates the damn thing:

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has also condemned the delegation, describing it as ineffective and a key element of a broad international conspiracy against his embattled country.

So the mission, which is meant to produce a full report by 19 January, may struggle to keep going until then.   But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As I argued in my Foreign Policy piece, the mission’s true role may not to be oversee a (now entirely discredited) peace agreement, but to concentrate international attention on just how awful things are in Syria:

While the observers may be failing in their stated goal — to help ensure that the Syrian army halts attacks on civilians — they have already played a significant role in underlining the brutality and untrustworthiness of the Syrian regime. There was previously copious evidence of the regime’s violence from refugees, human rights activists, undercover journalists, and U.N. reports. But the observer mission’s presence has magnified outside awareness of these abuses, especially because the media have tracked the observers’ every move. Although the mission’s leadership has mishandled relations with the press, individual observers have been frank with journalists about abuses they have witnessed and the limitations they are under — effectively circumnavigating the constraints on their formal reporting lines.

The fact that atrocities appear to be ongoing while the observers are in place also raises the diplomatic stakes. Arab politicians and commentators have already demanded that the mission should withdraw in protest at Syria’s behavior, and the monitors’ public difficulties will surely increase tensions between Damascus and the rest of the League. It is a sad truth of international politics that governments and international organizations are often far more concerned about attacks on their own credibility than human rights abuses. The Arab League, having won a new degree of credibility by taking a tough stance on Libya nearly a year ago, now finds its reputation tied to its observers’ performance in Syria.

If the Arab League wants to maintain some respect, it should now make a point of stating quite clearly that the Syrian government has made the observers’ work impossible – and call on the UN to take action as a consequence.  The League’s mission has been a mess, but I still believe it may have an important role in triggering a real response to this grim crisis.