The Arab League Uses the Hammer on Syria

The members of the Arab League are standing up against one of their own.

The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Baroness Catherine Ashton meets the chairman of the Arab League Amr Moussa in Cairo, Egypt, June 18
The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Baroness Catherine Ashton meets the chairman of the Arab League Amr Moussa in Cairo, Egypt, June 18 (EEAS)

Just over a year ago, the Arab League was seen as a defunct regional institution with no political will to punish its members and no teeth to back up its resolutions. 

With 22 member states, the forum was closer in structure to an exclusive club of autocrats than a effective pan-Arab body trying to improve the lives of its citizens. Statements of self-congratulation and expressions of Arab solidarity were shallow and routine attempts to solve disputes, while the underlying causes of the problems were left to fester. The league’s charter is as keen on preserving national sovereignty as it is on promoting pan-Arab solutions to regional issues. 

Were a government to miraculously be condemned by the league, only the states who voted for the condemnation are required to implement the punishments — and even then, the body was unable to prevent states from looking the other way.

But that was one year ago, when democratic governance and human rights in the Middle East were still simmering below the radar. Now, with the Arab Spring in full gear and tens of millions of Arabs standing up against their governments, the league has transformed itself from a ceremonial chamber into one of the busiest regional institutions in the region. The league still has a lot of work to do before it reaches the stature of the European Union or the Union of South American Nations, but its delegates are making a concerted attempt to sanction those who slaughter their own people and reward those who don’t.

In an unprecedented move by the Arab League in Cairo, nineteen of its members voted to sanction Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its continued violence against regime protesters. 

The sanctions push began two weeks ago when Arab ministers demanded that the Syrian government allow observers into the country to ensure that Assad was making good on his promise to withdraw soldiers from the streets.

Syria responded to the demand by stonewalling, sending a letter to Cairo asking for further clarification. After a 72 hour deadline for compliance passed, the Arab world’s foreign and finance ministers gathered to debate sanctions against a fellow member. The only nation that voted down the measure was Syria itself.

In addition to the political significance of the sanctions package, the proposal hits Syria’s economy and pride where it hurts. Arab governments are forbidden from trading with Syria’s central bank; Syrian government officials involved in the crackdown are unable to travel to other Arab countries; Arab officials are forbidden from traveling to Syria; and financial constraints will be imposed on individual members of Assad’s ruling party. 

Perhaps the biggest embarrassment of all for the Syrians is the package’s overall objective — to completely isolate the country from its neighbors. For a Syrian Arab Republic that once bragged about its role as a leader in bringing the Arabs together, the motive stings.

With sanctions now looming over Damascus, the mantle of Arab solidarity that Syrian officials have used as a crutch for the past five decades has fallen flat.

Unfortunately, two of Syria’s neighbors may not cooperate with the economic squeeze — at least not entirely. 

Lebanon, under the de facto control of the Hezbollah movement, an ally of Assad’s, is sure to limit its involvement. The Iraqi foreign ministers indicated that his government will most likely go its own way by continuing to trade with its Syrian partner.

As of 2010, Iraq’s bilateral trade with Syria stood at approximately $3 billion dollars, a valuable junk of cash for a country that will be fully independent from American military tutelage for the first time in nine years. Baghdad would be foolish to jeopardize that revenue, nor it is willing to push Assad further to the brink when violence from Syria could easily spill across the border into Anbar Province.

All of these caveats notwithstanding, the leaders of the Arab world, from the United Arab Emirates to Morocco, have run out of patience. The West, which has long complained about the Arab League’s indecisiveness, can now applaud its change of tune.