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How the Arab League turned against Syria

Why did the Arab League, once perceived as an ineffective dictators’ club, end up taking the side of anti-government protesters against the Syrian regime? Does its humanitarian rhetoric simply conceal its most powerful member states’ true motives: concern over the geopolitical distribution of power?

The Arab Spring has overturned long-held assumptions about political stagnation, popular apathy, and the strength of the authoritarian police state in the Middle East. Perhaps no development has challenged outside views of the region, however, more than the Arab League’s decision to disown member governments for violently repressing domestic protests. The League suspended Syria’s membership in November, following this action with calls for sanctions and a human rights observation mission. The Arab League has most recently proposed a plan to transfer power from Bashar Assad to a caretaker government, lobbying unsuccessfully for its adoption by the UN Security Council. Along with an earlier decision to back NATO intervention against Libya, this marks a significant departure from the League’s long-held emphasis on the inviolability of its members’ national sovereignty. How did the Arab League, once perceived as an ineffective dictators’ club, end up taking the side of anti-government protesters against the Syrian regime? 

The most widely-proposed explanation has focused on the regional tensions between Shia Iran and the largely Sunni member states of the League. Arab governments, long concerned with the emergence of a ‘Shiite Crescent’ led by Tehran, look favourably upon the prospect of a popularly-elected Sunni government replacing Assad’s pro-Iranian regime. Beneath the surface there is another divide: that between the Arab monarchies - which have together presented a unified front against internal uprisings - and the teetering secular dictatorships they are willing to let fall. Additional considerations include competition for regional leadership with Turkey, which has taken a strong stance in support of the region’s protesters and been rewarded with the adoration of the Arab public. These explanations assume that the Arab League’s humanitarian rhetoric simply conceals its most powerful member states’ true motives: concern over the geopolitical distribution of power. 

The Arab League’s activism masks the reality of an organization divided along clear lines: Sunni monarchies and post-revolutionary governments are more eager to oppose Assad’s regime than Shia-led governments and secular dictatorships. The tensions between Shia and Sunni-led governments in the Middle East are driven by realist geopolitical concerns as well as long-standing animosity between oppositional religious identities. In the aftermath of the brutal Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s regime was perceived as a bulwark against Iranian radicalism; his removal in 2003 upended the regional balance against Iran and left many Arab states worried about the emergence of a ‘Shiite Crescent’ encompassing Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. In the November vote to suspend Syria, Iraq’s Shia-led government abstained and Lebanon’s Shia-Christian coalition government voted no. In contrast, eighteen of the nineteen Sunni-led governments in the Arab League voted to suspend Syria, leaving the Republic of Yemen as the sole Sunni voice of dissent.

Yemen’s support for the Syrian regime is in fact evidence of the second divide within the world of Arab autocracies: between monarchs and secular dictators. This divide has emerged as a major factor in the Arab Spring, as the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria – all republics – have been overturned or deeply shaken by popular uprisings. Meanwhile, Arab monarchies have appeared surprisingly resilient in the face of regional unrest. When major protests threatened to topple the royals in Bahrain, Arab monarchies closed ranks under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and quashed the protests in a multilateral display of force led by Saudi Arabia. Flagrantly disregarding geography, the GCC has since suggested that Jordan and Morocco might become members, a move that would further entrench the organization’s identity as an exclusive club of pro-Western Sunni Arab monarchies.

Qatar, which currently chairs the Arab League, led the effort to censure Assad’s regime with the support of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC. These Arab monarchies probably assume that any precedent set by their decisions on Libya and Syria will apply only to the dictators ruling secular republics, leaving the legitimacy of their kingdoms, emirates, and sultanates unquestioned. In contrast, Yemen’s secular dictatorship voted against Syria’s suspension, clearly seeing that this decision would make it easier for the League to take future action against its own embattled regime. Algeria, the most prominent secular dictatorship as yet unaffected by the Arab Spring, has similarly voiced concerns about undermining national sovereignty in the region. Understanding Arab states’ type of government, sectarian affiliation, and geopolitical relationship with Syria is crucial to explaining the Arab League’s stance towards the Assad regime – but this is not the whole story. 

Liberal norms in an authoritarian region

The League’s turn against Assad also arises from its member governments’ increased sensitivity to liberal norms. The uprisings in the region have marked the ascendance of Arab public opinion, shaped in a media environment comfortable with the discourse of human rights, democratization, and solidarity with oppressed peoples. It is to be expected that the foreign policy of post-revolutionary transitional governments in Libya or Tunisia would reflect popular sentiments, leading them to side with the Syrian protesters. It is the still-intact autocratic governments of the Arab Gulf states, however, which are leading the push against Assad’s government. They too are increasingly sensitive to public opinion as they seek to defuse popular anger and buttress their regimes. Even if Arab leaders turn against the Syrian regime is a cynical attempt to deflect popular anger against their own governments, this decision nevertheless strengthens liberal humanitarian norms and sets a precedent against state repression. 

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly called for “concrete, immediate, and comprehensive reforms” to address the “deplorable situation of human rights” in Syria, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council. This and other similar statements demonstrates that even highly illiberal regimes are becoming increasingly sensitive to human rights concerns. While numerous geopolitical considerations had already primed key Arab states to oppose the Assad regime, it was grassroots activism that actually pushed the Arab League to take action. The Arab public has emerged as a remarkable champion for human rights and democratic governance in the region, and, by virtue of the Arab Spring, has forced even the most stable autocratic governments to take note.

Much of the contemporary Arab concern with human rights can be traced back to the launch of the satellite television channel al-Jazeera fifteen years ago, a process described in Marc Lynch’s Voices of the New Arab Public. Al-Jazeera was the first mainstream Arab media outlet to engage seriously with the subjects of human rights, political reform, and electoral democracy. Human rights norms, first advocated in the context of the Palestinian struggle against Israel, became universalized to include solidarity with disaffected Arab populations facing violence from their own governments. International human rights organizations have also become a part of the mainstream Arab discourse; Al-Jazeera online features over 500 articles tagged as citing the prominent NGO Human Rights Watch alone. This process has accelerated during the Arab Spring, driven by the increasing relevance of decentralized media sources disseminated both online through YouTube and Twitter as well as through traditional media outlets. 

Intense media coverage of the Syrian people’s suffering created space for Arab public opinion to turn decisively against the Syrian government in a way that would not have been possible in the 1980s or 90s. Spontaneous grassroots demonstrators and established Arab human rights organizations have further mobilized the public in pushing Arab states to condemn the Syrian regime’s violence against protesters. Last April, thirteen human rights NGOs from across the Arab world released a joint statement condemning Arab League member states’ hypocritical support for the Syrian regime, particularly in light of the League’s recent condemnation of state violence in Libya. Regional anger against the Syrian crackdown led to popular demonstrations in front of the Syrian embassies in Egypt and other Arab states. Meanwhile, protestors in Syria have sought to mobilize Arab public opinion by shaming their governments for their perceived ineffective response to the crisis. This was illustrated vividly in Syrian demonstrators’ mid-December chant “the Arab League is killing us, enough deadlines” – a media-savvy response to perceived Arab League dithering on the issue of broader international intervention.

Autocratic Arab governments, eager to pre-empt protests at home, have been highly sensitive to domestic agitation against Assad’s regime. This has led Arab League member states to openly side with the Syrian opposition, particularly as the Syrian government’s ability to effectively quash internal dissent appears doubtful. Regime survival is a very strong motivating force; aligning government policy with public sentiment on non-existential issues such as Syria appears a reasonable method to defuse popular anger at home. While this may bolster autocratic regimes in the short-run, over time these states will face future protests of their own, and they may find their earlier adoption of human rights rhetoric coming back to haunt them. The spread of human rights norms, accessible media, and an empowered Arab public have irreversibly narrowed the bounds of acceptable state behaviour in the Arab world, even in the most authoritarian states.

Where does the Arab League go from here? 

The Arab League now finds itself with few cards left to play following the Russian and Chinese veto of its plan at the UN Security Council on Saturday. Events within Syria have overtaken external threats of sanctions, as the economy has already fallen apart amid the escalating violence. The League might still grant or withhold legitimacy to Turkish and/or western military intervention, recommit to its monitoring mission, or propose another plan for reform or regime change in Syria. However, the clock is ticking on the League’s ability to present a unified face to the world, as Iraq is set to take over from Qatar as rotating chair of the League next month and will be loathe to lead any action against Assad. While the past four months will likely end up as the high-water mark of Arab League activism against the Syrian regime, the larger regional changes that led to its unprecedented decision to take action will remain.

The Arab League’s stance against the Syrian regime is a result of both its member states’ geopolitical interests and the increasing salience of human rights; in the absence of either the League would have continued on course to quietly support the Syrian government. The League’s actions against Assad have strengthened norms against state repression in the Middle East, a process begun earlier with the Arab League’s endorsement of international intervention in Libya.

These two cases, however, do not herald a consistent Arab League stance against repression by member states, who will continue to use violence to ensure regime survival when they deem it necessary. Where human rights norms and core national interests conflict, as in the case of a majority Shia uprising against a Sunni monarchy in Bahrain earlier this year, member states of the Arab League will find themselves swayed more by considerations of regime solidarity and hard geopolitical power than liberal ideals. While neither the Arab League nor its member states can be expected to consistently embrace the protection of human rights over national sovereignty, in the past year they have opened the topic to discussion and helped transform the region in the process.

About the author

Sean Mann is a Masters candidate at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service


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