LONDON – For most of its 66-year history, the Arab League was a powerless organization, dominated by autocratic regimes that made sure it never criticized their lies and crimes. But suddenly, this year, it woke up and changed sides.
Last March the Arab League suspended Libya’s membership because of dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s brutal attempts to suppress the revolution, and voted to back a no-fly zone in Libya. That led directly to the United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians from Gadhafi’s army, and ultimately to the tyrant’s overthrow and death.
Last Saturday the Arab League acted again, suspending Syria’s membership. It did so because President Bashar Assad has not carried out the commitments he gave the League about ending the violence against Syrian civilians (an estimated 3,500 killed so far), pulling the army off the streets of Syrian cities, releasing the thousands of recently imprisoned protesters, and opening a dialogue with the opposition within two weeks.
On Sunday the Arab League’s secretary general, Nabil al-Arabi, called for “international protection” for Syrian civilians as the organization lacked the means to act alone. “There is nothing wrong with going to the U.N. Security Council because it is the only organization able to impose” such measures, he added. And he said that during a visit to Tripoli, the newly liberated capital of Libya.
Everybody understood the significance of his saying it there. The Arab League explicitly rejects foreign military intervention in Syria, and NATO would never take on Assad’s regime anyway. But al-Arabi was implicitly saying that what is happening in Syria now is comparable to what was happening in Libya six months ago, and that all measures short of war are justified to stop the slaughter in Syria and remove the dictator’s regime.
Then on Monday, King Abdullah of Jordan finally said aloud what almost every other Arab leader has been thinking: “If Bashar [al-Assad] has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down.”
It’s particularly striking coming from Abdullah because the two men are not just neighbors. They both came to power in 1999-2000, replacing fathers who had ruled over their respective countries for decades, and they were both originally painted as reformers. True, Assad is not technically a king, but he is equally the product of a dynasty — and here is his closest counterpart in the Arab world publicly giving up on him.
Abdullah added that, on his way out, Bashar should also “create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life.” Decoded, that means that Syria’s problems cannot be ending just by changing horses. The whole Ba’athist regime, and the near monopoly of power by the Alawite minority that underpins it, have to go too.
This is astonishing stuff. One year ago, nobody would have believed it possible that 18 of the 22 members of the Arab League would vote, in effect, for the peaceful removal of the oppressive Syrian regime, or that the Jordanian king would dare to be so frank about his neighbor’s problems and options. What has wrought this miracle?
It would be nice to say that the rapid and largely nonviolent spread of democracy in the Arab world has brought enlightenment even to the most deeply entrenched authoritarian regimes, but it would not be true. Only three of the 22 Arab League members (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya) have actually had democratic revolutions, and their example has not transformed the attitudes of all the other members. What drives this response is mostly fear.
The Arab League said nothing when Bashar Assad’s father slaughtered up to 40,000 Syrians while putting down a revolt in the city of Hama in 1982, but his son’s brutality is simply unacceptable today. Arab leaders can no longer ignore the mass killing of Arab citizens. Some of them would like to, but uncensored Arabic-language mass media, broadcasting directly from satellites, have made it impossible. Everybody knows what’s going on.
Moreover, none of the other big countries of the Arab east — Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon — are very far from Syria. The longer the struggle there goes on, the likelier it is to topple over into sectarian war and ethnic cleansing. The neighbors are rightly terrified that the sectarian violence might then spill over into their own countries as well, so the sooner Assad leaves office, the better.
And finally, there is the remarkable role being played by Qatar, the mouse that roared. It is one of the smallest Arab states, but its ruler, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has been both brave and far-sighted. It was he who gave Al Jazeera television, the first and best of the new satellite-based news operations, a terrestrial home, and even substantial subsidies.
It was Qatar that took the lead in persuading the Arab League to suspend Gadhafi’s regime last March, and then actually sent planes and military advisers to assist the pro-democracy revolt in Libya. And it is Qatar again, in the form of Prime Minister Hamid bin Jassim Al Thani, chair of the League’s committee for dealing with Syrian problems, that pushed the League into suspending Syria last week.
Whether that will actually produce the desired result in Syria remains to be seen. But at least they are trying.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.