The Arab League. a significant regional actor ?


Arab League’s Syrian Policy

by Mujge Kucukkeles 

Suspension of Syria’s Arab League membership in November 2011 could be characterized as a turning point in the Arab league’s 66-year old history. By con­demning the Syrian and Libyan regimes for disproportionate use of violence against their own people, the Arab League has somewhat found the demands of the Arab people rightful. the League has signaled with these decisions that it would move away from ideas of Arab nationalism and Arab unity in pursuit of further integration with the international system.

On the other hand, the authoritarian state systems of most of the member states of the League make it difficult to regard the Arab League decisions as steps supporting democracy. The League’s “democratic stance” is an outcome of the pressure of revolutions as much as of harmony of interests among the mem­ber states. Even though strengthening democracy in the region seems like an unrealistic desire of member states, these decisions push each member towards thinking about change and thus pave the way for democratic reform process.

The study at hand consists of two parts. The first part addresses the League’s policy proposals, decisions, and reactions regarding the Syrian crisis and con­centrates on what these policy measures mean for the League as a regional organization. The second part examines regional dynamics that play a cru­cial role in the current crisis by looking at the different positions of regional and global actors on the Syrian crisis.

The Arab League that for the most part maintained its silence at the initial stages of the Syrian crisis was forced to take an active stance due to the risk of intensifying vio­lence that could spread to surrounding countries. The organization resolved to adopt a policy that bears considerable resemblance to the Turkish position based on regional attempts and international assistance, and proceeded to take certain steps that owed a great deal to pressure from its member countries. Although the League’s Syrian policy causes mixed reactions at this stage, its efforts received support from international ac­tors. Many observers also admit that foreign intervention to resolve the Syrian crisis may result in adverse reactions. It is also possible to claim that the Obama administra­tion that already withdrew from Iraq and plans to do so in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 is unlikely to become directly involved in the country. European countries that face similar economic challenges are also unwilling to bear the burden of direct inter­vention. As a matter of fact, although European leaders welcomed the Arab League’s proposal to send a UN-AL joint peace force to Syria, they also voiced their opposition to foreign intervention. In this sense, the Arab League’s active role vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis was received positively in the West.

On the other hand, the Arab League’s willingness to play an active role toward Syria is important from a Russian and Chinese perspective since this would precisely prevent international intervention attempts. Although the Russian- and Chinese governments do not support the organization’s Syrian policy thus far, they did express their interest in peaceful resolution. Turkey—which advocated early on that the matter be handled regionally—both has encouraged and supported the Arab League’s steps with regard to the Syrian crisis.

However, the Arab League’s intense efforts regarding regional issues failed to craft a shared regional position. The complex set of relations between member countries and external actors with conflicting regional interests deprived the organization of healthi­ly functioning decision-making mechanisms, and therefore gave rise to suspicions that the League’s resolutions were open to external influences. The difficult-to-tackle secu­rity aspect of regional issues necessitates different options including intervention and sanctions to be kept on the table at all times. Given the Arab world’s lack of experience in this area, the League’s ability to unilaterally formulate policy proves rather limited.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring ushered in new areas such as adhering to demo­cratic demands and safeguarding human rights that are indeed unconventional for the Arab League. The fact that most member states are not governed by participatory political regimes renders it challenging for the League to respond to cases of popu­lar pro-democracy demonstrations as in Syria. At this point, a need emerged for the Arab League to increase its democratic experience as well. The Arab League started to emerge as a significant regional actor thanks to its role in addressing the Syrian crisis as well as in its international efforts to resolve the matter. The organization also proved that it possesses the ability to form new alliances in order to address emerging prob­lems with regional solutions.

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