The dispatch of about 50 unarmed Arab League observers to Syria earlier this week has failed to quell the country's mounting violence. Syrian activists reported that at least 32 people were killed across the country today, with the worst violence just outside Damascus.
In that incident, Syrian government security forces opened fire on protesters, sparking an hour of fighting that involved army defectors who have taken up arms against President Bashar al-Assad. The cities of Homs, Hama, and Daraa all witnessed killings.
That the observer mission is failing is hardly surprising. Mr. Assad has used extreme violence against his citizens to hold on to power for over six months now, and more recently, protesters have been fighting back. The Free Syrian Army, a group fighting against the regime, has taken responsibility for attacks on army convoys and military outposts in recent weeks, and appears to be gaining support. Some are warning that Syria could slide into civil war if the violence continues. By some measures, it's already there. At least 5,000 people have been killed so far, according to the United Nations, and there are now daily violent clashes over the question of who should run the country.
Unlike Egypt, where the military establishment was unwilling to plunge the nation into a civil war to save Hosni Mubarak, most of Assad's army has stayed on his side as he's ratcheted up the violence. And unlike the case of Libya, where international military support to oust Muammar Qaddafi was fast in coming, there is no political will at the moment for military intervention of any kind in Syria.
So to abandon the course of violence, at this point, would amount to giving up the hopes of keeping his family in power. That's the motivating impetus behind the regime's actions, and a handful of observers can do little to change that.
None of this is surprising. Activists were skeptical that the observers would accomplish much even as they arrived and events since have done little to dispel the impression of an ineffectual mission. The leader of the team, Gen. Mohammed Ahmad Al Dabi from Sudan, serves President Omar al-Bashir, who has been under indictment with the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes since 2009. General Dabi himself was accused in the late 1990s of organizing the Janaweed militia that carried out the worst massacres in Darfur.
Coming as he does from a government that is staunchly opposed to military intervention on humanitarian grounds, it's unlikely that Dabi will return with a report that stronger action should be taken, even if that's what it should say.
He is unlikely to come back with a report that Assad is viciously cracking down and stronger action should be taken, given his own history
Writing in Foreign Policy, David Kenner described him as perhaps "the unlikeliest leader of a humanitarian mission the world has ever seen."
Amateur video of a protest in Homs today: