Syria protests: Arab League consensus paves the way for UN sanctions

After eight months of Syria protests, the Arab League decision to suspend Syria's membership gives regional backing for UN sanctions, which could ease Russian and Chinese opposition.

Amr Nabil/AP
Yussef al-Ahmad, Syria's ambassador to the Arab League, chairs his delegation during the Arab League emergency session on Syria at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov.12. The Arab League has voted to suspend Syria from all meetings until it implements plan to end bloodshed.

An emerging Arab consensus against Syria for its brutal assault on a pro-democracy uprising paves the way for broader international pressure on the Assad regime.

Much like the Arab League support for a Libyan no-fly zone made international action politically possible, Saturday’s vote by the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership in the bloc makes international action more likely.

While the League's members made clear that they were not endorsing military action this time, their public stance against Syria could help turn the tide in a stand-off now entering its ninth month – both by opening the way for United Nations Security Council sanctions and by helping to unite the fragmented Syrian opposition.

“The significance of the Arab League's decision was that it had finally lifted the Arab cover from the Assad regime,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. The addition of regional Arab opposition to Turkish and Western criticism of Syria, he says, will lead to a coalition that "is not only going to seek to pressure and isolate the regime, but will also increasingly be looking at a post-Assad Syria."

Since Saturday’s vote, the European Union has imposed additional sanctions on 18 Syrians it says are responsible for or associated with the regime’s repression. Jordan’s King Abdullah said Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step down. He is the first Arab leader to say so publicly.

Syria’s neighbor and one-time friend Turkey is also ratcheting up the pressure: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday he had lost confidence in Syria’s regime. Turkey’s energy minister, meanwhile, threatened to review its electricity supply to Syria, if Syria does not change course, and said Turkey had canceled oil exploration plans in the country.

At the same time, Syria continued violence against protesters, with activist groups reporting that at least 70 people were killed by security forces in the past day. More than 250 people have been killed so far this month, according to Syrian activists. The UN estimates that more than 3,500 people have died since the uprising began.

'Galvanizing' effect on Syrian opposition

The Arab League’s vote to suspend Syria came after Damascus ignored an agreement with the League to end the violence, instead escalating attacks against civilians almost immediately.

Of the 22-member League, only Yemen and Lebanon voted against the measure, while Iraq abstained. The League also called on its member states to withdraw their ambassadors from Syria, and said it supports sanctions on the Syrian regime and would talk with the Syrian opposition.

Though Syria’s violence has not quelled the uprising, military commanders, businessmen, and many of those from Syria’s religious minorities still support the regime, making an end to the conflict difficult to see. The Arab League decision, however, will help bring pressure to bear on the regime that could eventually help turn the tide, say analysts.

Mr. Shaikh says the League's vote could help unify the Syrian opposition, an important step for providing a credible alternative to the Assad regime as the lack of a unified opposition has been a roadblock for pushing for regime change in Syria. The Arab League decision has already had “a galvanizing and converging effect” on the opposition, he says, noting that they have dropped discussion of dialogue with the regime, which had been a divisive issue for them in recent months. 

Easing Russian, Chinese opposition to sanctions?

The Arab League vote will also better the chances that the UN Security Council will take action to impose sanctions on the regime. Russia and China, both trading partners with Syria, vetoed an October UNSC resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown. If a new resolution is presented, they will now have less cover for blocking it.

The Arab League move “puts a little bit more pressure on the Russians and Chinese,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation. “They are more out of step with the region than before. They can't now claim that there is no regional consensus.”

Mr. Hanna says the Arab League vote can make a real difference.

“It signifies greater regional isolation, and not just on a symbolic level ... [but] on a realized actual level," he says. I think it does put pressure on other actors to act as well and creates a great possibility for consensus on next steps with Turks and Europeans and Americans.”

Saudi Arabia moves to counter Iran's influence

Saturday’s vote came as a surprise to many observers, and even to many of the Syrian protesters who had gathered outside the Arab League building to urge Arab leaders to suspend Syria. It was a result, say diplomats, of Gulf pressure.

Qatar, the tiny Gulf nation seeking a larger regional role, publicly led the way and has received much of the credit. But Arab League diplomats say it was Saudi Arabia that carried out much of the behind-the-scenes arm-twisting needed to get a nearly unanimous decision against Syria. One diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak on the matter, said it was Saudi Arabia that convinced a reluctant Egypt to vote for the measure, and that it had worked on other nations as well.

Analysts also said Saudi Arabia provided the heft behind Qatar’s push. Saudi Arabia was motivated largely by the opportunity to counter the influence of its enemy Iran, which supports Syria. But to see the Gulf kingdom take such an interventionist policy is a shift, says Hanna. And with the former pillars of the Arab world in flux – Egypt, Syria, and Iraq – Saudi dominance at the Arab League is only likely to grow, he says.  

“While we might see a rebalancing going forward, with a more independent Egypt, that's not going to happen for awhile. And it's not going to happen for awhile with the Syrians or the Iraqis,” he says. “We've seen Qatar try to fill that vacuum, and they've played a huge role of late, but it also means that for better or worse there's a real opening for Saudi exercise of power.”

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