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Russia pressures Syria to extend Arab League observer mission

The Arab League observer mission to Syria officially ends tomorrow. Many have dismissed it as ineffective, but it may be the only alternative to UN action, which Russia has blocked.

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    An Arab league observer (l.), with orange vest, writes the names of freed Syrian prisoners as they are released from Adra Prison on the north-east outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on Saturday. The Arab League’s observer mission in Syria officially ends tomorrow. The mission was sent in to verify that President Bashar al-Assad was complying with a peace plan that he agreed to in November, which included releasing political prisoners.
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• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The Arab League’s observer mission in Syria officially ends tomorrow with no indication that President Bashar al-Assad has eased his crackdown since monitors arrived in late December. The United Nations Security Council and Arab League are struggling to decide their next steps.

The mission was sent in to verify that Mr. Assad was complying with a peace plan that he agreed to in November, which included ending violence against protesters, withdrawing troops from Syrian cities, and releasing political prisoners.

The UN has estimated the death toll to be at least 5,000; hundreds have been killed just since monitors arrived last month, Reuters reports.  An Arab League source told Reuters that the Assad regime will allow the monitor mission to be extended for another month, but will not permit an extension of its mandate. The mission has been controversial from the start because it lacks any teeth and monitors have had to rely on the Syrian government for protection and direction. Critics of the mission called it ineffective, with some saying it is providing cover for the Assad regime.

Two monitors quit the mission last week, with one of them calling it a “farce.”

An Arab League source told Reuters that Syria is under pressure from China and Russia to agree to an extension of the observer mission as a way to avoid international action at the UN Security Council. Russia, one of five permanent members with veto power on the council, has pledged to block any action against Syria, including approval of an armed intervention. Russia circulated a draft resolution on Jan. 16 that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “was aimed at making it explicitly clear that nothing could justify a foreign military interference,” reports the Associated Press.

"If some intend to use force at all cost ... we can hardly prevent that from happening," he said. "But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience, they won't get any authorization from the UN Security Council."

Russia is under significant scrutiny amid rumors that it has delivered arms to Syria, which has raised concern in the US and in the European Union, which is seeking to impose a Syria arms embargo. But Mr. Lavrov said Russia does not owe the international community any explanation because it is not doing anything illegal.

"We don't consider it necessary to explain or justify ourselves, as we are not violating any international agreements or any [U.N.] Security Council resolutions," he said. “We are only dealing with Syria in those items not outlawed under international law,” he added.

In the fall, Russia and China blocked a Security Council resolution that would have imposed an arms embargo on Syria.

With no recourse for international action at the UN level, the Arab League is under pressure to take initiative in Syria when it convenes again later this week. But other ideas are being floated as well.

Earlier this week, the emir of Qatar called for Arab troops to be sent to Syria, becoming the first Arab leader to suggest an armed intervention in Syria, BBC reports.

There has been little indication from other Arab or Western countries that they are considering that possibility and Syria “absolutely rejected” it yesterday. The action would require either the invitation of the Syrian government or UN Security Council authorization, both of which are highly unlikely, according to BBC.

Marc Lynch writes in Foreign Policy that “Military intervention in Syria has little prospect of success, a high risk of disastrous failure, and a near-certainty of escalation.” He adds that comparisons to NATO's intervention in Libya, which many deemed a successful, are inaccurate.

Syria’s opposition is weaker and more divided than Libya’s, the killing is being done in cities rather than along front lines, there is a risk of regional spillover, and there is no international authorization, he says. Because the fighting is mostly happening in densely populated urban areas, a no-fly zone is also not a viable option, Dr. Lynch writes.

Military intervention in Syria to stop the killing appeals to the soul but does not make sense. That doesn't mean ignoring the slaughter. The United States and its allies must indeed do more to support the Syrian opposition forces. It should work to achieve a UN Security Council mandate for comprehensive international sanctions against Damascus, and continue to work with its regional allies to build bilateral and regional pressure. Now that Michael McFaul has finally been confirmed as ambassador to Russia, and the Arab League mission has largely failed, the U.S. can hopefully make more progress in shaping a strong Security Council resolution. … More ways could be found to help build the nascent Syrian opposition, and to engage with and support the groups emerging on the ground as opposed to the exile groups. More could be done to plan for a post-Assad future and to communicate to terrified Syrians sitting on the fence that they have a place in that new Syria.”

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