September 2, 2013 Special Dispatch No. 5432

Against Backdrop Of Obama's Call For International Intervention In Syria, Arab Press Criticizes Arab League's Powerlessness In Handling Arab Crises

September 2, 2013
Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, The Gulf | Special Dispatch No. 5432

The impasse in the Syrian situation, as manifested by the failure to reach a political solution and the West's delay in arriving at a decision regarding a military strike, has sparked a debate in the Arab countries about the legitimacy of foreign intervention in Syria and the role the Arabs themselves must play in resolving the crisis.

The September 1 Arab League foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo shed light on the division in the Arab world between those in favor of foreign intervention in Syria (chief among them Saudi Arabia) and those who reject this option out of hand. According to reports in the Arab media, the meeting participants were in dispute over whether the Arab League should back a U.S. military strike in Syria.[1] Also during the meeting, Ahmad Jarba, chairman of the Syrian National Coalition (the umbrella group of opposition and revolutionary forces in Syria), urged the meeting participants to support the U.S. strike in order to protect the Syrian people;[2] a similar call came from Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal, who criticized the Arab countries opposed to resolving in favor of backing a Western attack, saying: "Any opposition to an international move only encourages the Syrian regime to continue to commit crimes using every kind of weapon of mass destruction at its disposal... It is unfair to claim that whoever comes to the rescue of [the Syrian people] is interfering in Syria's internal affairs. After all, it is the regime in Damascus that opened the gates wide to the forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Hizbullah forces, and other forces from the neighboring countries, [and invited them] to enter Syria – so much so that it has become an occupied country."[3]

On the other hand, many other Arab countries, headed by Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, were firmly against endorsing an American military strike in Syria. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy stressed in a speech that Egypt opposed any foreign intervention in this country "out of commitment to the principles of the U.N. Charter that prohibit the use of force except in cases of self-defense [or cases covered by] Chapter VII of the Charter." He added that the ideal solution to the Syrian crisis would be a political one, reached in the framework of the planned Geneva II conference. [4]

The Lebanese Al-Safir daily reported, citing a diplomatic source in Cairo, that Egypt and the Arab League general secretariat had not succumbed to "Saudi pressures [on the Arab League] to agree to a Western military attack [on Syria]."[5] Indeed, Saudi Arabia ultimately failed in its efforts to persuade the League to endorse a military strike. The closing statement issued at the end of the meeting did not even mention the option of foreign intervention or an American attack. It only held the Syrian regime responsible for the use of chemical weapons in the Al-Ghouta region, and called upon the U.N. and the international community "to take the necessary measures in order to deter the perpetrators of this crime" and to try them in an international court.[6]

This lack of agreement in the Arab world and the absence of a uniform strategy for resolving the crisis rekindled the criticism regarding the ineffectiveness of the Arab League and its inability to handle the Syrian crisis and to lead action in the Arab world in general. This criticism was voiced both by the proponents of foreign intervention in Syria and by its opponents. They said, among other things, that the Arab League must not limit itself to condemning the situation in Syria and charging the international community to resolve it, but must itself act to rescue the Syrian people. Some also claimed that this is not the first time the Arab League has sat on the sidelines without lifting a finger in the face of crises in the Arab world.[7]

This report reviews some of the articles published in the Arab press, both by the advocates of the U.S. strike and by its opponents, which discuss the role that the Arabs should play in handling the Syrian crisis and criticize the powerlessness of the Arab League.

Articles In Saudi, Qatari Press: International Involvement Is Necessary Due To Arab States' Powerlessness

Saudi Columnist: The Arab States Are Avoiding Taking A Stand On The Syrian Crisis

In a September 1, 2013 article, Saudi columnist Khalid Al-Dakhil criticized the Arab states that oppose the U.S. attack on humanitarian grounds when they know the attack is necessary. He also rebuked the countries that support the attack but refrain from explicitly stating so, such as the Gulf states, adding that this is not the first time the Arab states have concealed their real position, which is a sign of their weakness.

He wrote: "There's a sort of Arab consensus, official or unofficial, that the Syrian regime is murderous and bloodthirsty, and is the source of all the tragedies facing the Syrian people... and therefore it would be to their benefit if this regime fell or was replaced... [But the Arabs'] problem with the [planned American] strike is that an Arab regime would be attacked by the U.S., with support from the West. And here we must ask: Are we allowed to turn a blind eye to the crimes of the Syrian regime just because it is Arab? Anyone who is not among the supporters of this regime would answer no, a crime is a crime no matter who [perpetrated it]. But when the party meting out the punishment is non-Arab, and especially when it is Western, [the Arabs immediately] regard [this measure] as something dubious that must be opposed, or at least as something to which the Arabs must not agree.

"[The Arabs claim] that the U.S. attack is meant to serve American interests, and that the interests of the Syrian people and the Arabs do not concern the U.S. at all. That is perfectly true, but the problem with this position is that it stops right there – at the point of opposing [the attack]. [Moreover, this position] relies upon a moral argument that is dubious and even false, considering the political reality that is imposing itself upon us. Does it make a moral or legal difference whether an Arab is killed by Arabs or non-Arabs?... Killing a person is wrong because he is a human being, before he is anything else. So what can we say when an entire country is being destroyed just so the president can remain in his seat?

"Syria is being destroyed, and its people are being killed or are becoming refugees on a daily basis, yet the Arabs are unable or unwilling to do anything about it. One has the right to oppose foreign intervention in the crisis, but one does not have the right to oppose it without presenting an alternative. Such a position permits the regime to continue the destruction and killing. The talk about [the U.S. pursuing its own] interests is nonsense. It's only natural that the West should pursue its own interests; that is to its credit, not its detriment. Is there anyone [in the world] who acts out of other people's interests? Why shouldn't the Arabs pursue their own interests? Do the Turks, the Iranians and others pursue the interests of the Arabs?...

"It is the Syrian regime that forced this crisis upon all of us in the first place. [But] the Arab states also [had a hand in it], merely in their inability to do anything about it. Embarrassingly, some Arab countries have declared their opposition [to the U.S. attack] but their opposition has not been accompanied by the requisite political measures, and they [are willing to] serve as false witnesses to any [future] event. Egypt after the [recent] military coup is an example of this. Jordan is an example of an Arab state that declares neither opposition nor consent to the attack, [but only] stresses that it will not be the base for an attack. Then there are Arab states that in their heart of hearts agree to the attack, but keep mum and do not announce it. The list of these states is so long that it stretches from the Arabian Gulf [i.e. the Persian Gulf] to the Arab Maghreb...

"The only two countries in the region that have clearly stated their position on the [U.S.] strike are Turkey and Iran. Turkey not only supports it but is willing to take part in it. Iran, [on the other hand], opposes the strike and issues resounding [statements], while staying vague regarding its response [to the attack, should it come]... The position of these two countries is noteworthy because it underscores what is already known: that the Arab states – for whom a civil war in an Arab country [should be a matter of direct] concern, more than for others, and who will be more affected than others by the outcomes of this war and of the expected U.S. strike – are the only ones that do not have a uniform and clear position about it. The Arab ideology [that automatically rejects foreign intervention] is the greatest impediment to their voicing a clear position on a measure than many of them deem necessary and crucial.

"In any case, this is nothing new. We saw the same thing during all the crises the Arabs have known, at least since the end of World War II. When the Arab position is such – namely, a silence indicating either embarrassment, acquiescence or opposition – it reflects political weakness coupled with a lack of military ability and a lack of vision. A state that does not have a uniform and clear position, especially in moments of crisis, is not exactly a state..."[8]

Saudi Daily: The Arab Countries Must Do More Than Issue Condemnations – They Must Rescue The Syrian People

The September 2, 2013 editorial of the Saudi daily Al-Yawm stated that, in light of the events in Syria, the Arab countries must not confine themselves to issuing condemnations but must perform their duty to help the Syrians. It said: "...The ordeals prepared for the Syrian [people] by the Syrian regime and its sponsors obligate the Arab League countries to take decisions to help the Syrian people. They must not limit themselves to [issuing] condemnations, especially when the Syrian people [themselves] have decided, with great determination and courage, to liberate themselves and their homeland from one of the blackest and most tyrannical regimes history has ever known... No Arab state has an excuse any longer to [avoid this], now that the Assad regime and its sponsors have removed their masks and announced that their war is a sectarian [war] aimed at routing out [Assad's opponents] and giving Iran control over the lands of Al-Sham [Greater Syria] and subjugating them to Iran's will and needs... Two and a half years of bloodshed using the most deadly weapons – including planes, tanks, destructive missiles and chemical weapons – obligate the Arab League to gather its courage... and fulfill its duty to stop Assad's war machine and save Syria's women, children and youth from this horrible conflagration, whose flames have spread to all parts of the country and all its cities."[9]

The Arab world divided over the chemical attack in Syria (Al-Khaleej, UAE, September 2, 2013)

Qatari Daily: The Arabs And International Community Must Do Their Moral Duty And Stop The Extermination Of The Syrian People

The September 2, 2013 editorial of the Qatari daily Al-Raya called upon the Arabs to fulfill their responsibility towards the Syrian people, and criticized the decisions taken at the foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo: "The Arab League has held the Syrian regime responsible for the crime of killing civilians with chemical weapons near Damascus last week. But that is not enough, for condemnations... do not provide the Syrian people with protection or keep it from getting killed. Qatar has called upon the international community to fully discharge its responsibility to protect the Syrian people from any chemical or other attack that the tyrannical and oppressive Syrian regime might perpetrate against [them]. But this [also] necessitates Arab action to help the Syrian people.

"The Syrian regime crossed all the red lines when it used chemical weapons, destroyed and razed cities and villages, and killed tens of thousands of Syrians over the [past] two and a half years. It's time for the international community, including the Arabs, to perform their historical and moral duty to stop the [Syrian] regime from continuing its war of extermination against its people..."

Regarding the closing statement issued at the end of the foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo, the daily stated: "The consensus [among the foreign ministers] that steps must be taken to deter the Syrian regime from continuing its crimes, and [their] demand that the international community intervene to protect the Syrian people, were the minimum that the Arab League could do for the sake of the Syrians, considering the dire conditions in Syria."[10]

The Arabs undecided on the military attack on Syria (Akhbar Al-Khalij, Bahrain, September 1, 2013)

Articles In Egyptian, Iraqi Press: The Arab League, Not The International Community, Must Handle Crises In Arab World

Al-Ahram: The Division In The Arab World Paralyzes The Arab League

The opponents of an international intervention in Syria likewise criticized the Arab League's inaction, and its inability to handle the crisis or take an independent position on it. The Egyptian daily Al-Ahram stressed in its Sept 1, 2013 editorial that the Arab League must handle all crucial Arab issues, instead of leaving it to the West: "In light of the rapid changes in the Arab world today, it is important to develop the activity of the Arab League so that it can accompany the important events in the region, especially when they involve one of the League's prominent member states. Although the entire world is focused on the American determination to stage a military strike in Syria, the Arab League has not taken the necessary action, apart from convening a foreign ministers' meeting... and denying that it has agreed to an attack on Syria.

"All signs indicate that the position of the foreign ministers [at the meeting] will be that the Syrian issue should be brought to the [U.N.] Security Council... and that no military move against Syria must be taken without the Security Council's [approval]. This position... reflects the Arab League's inability to play a alternative positive role in the crisis. This is because the Arab countries have been divided on the events in Syria from the very beginning, and also because some of [these] countries have pushed the Arab League to take a position against the Syrian regime and to embrace some of the Syrian opposition [forces].

"The Arab League should play a central role in all important Arab issues, and should not leave [such] issues to the international forces and the U.N. – for by doing so it loses the justification for its existence. A military strike in Syria will threaten the Arab national security, and the Arab League must examine it from this perspective and discuss the repercussions of the crisis and the ways to resolve it, instead of just issuing condemnations and observing [from the sidelines]."[11]

Egyptian Columnist: The Arab League – A Flunky Of The U.S. And Europe

Yousuf Ayyoub, a columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', wrote under the headline "The Arab League is Subordinate to the West" that that the Arab League, in its weakness, blindly follows the U.S. and Europe in their initiative to attack Syria, instead of assessing the crisis for itself and proposing its own initiative for resolving it: "...The Arab League's position on the crisis in Syria reveals the weakness of this institution and of the officials in it, from the secretary-general down to the lowliest functionary. The Arab League has never taken the reigns of initiative, but instead continues to wait for international and regional initiatives in order to follow them, one by one. Since the beginning of the [Syrian] crisis, the Arab League has not take a [single] step forward [on its own], but continued to follow the will of the Americans and Europeans, who manipulate it and its secretary-general according to their needs...

"I am not defending Bashar Al-Assad and his regime. His crimes against his people are sufficient [reason] to remove him from power. But for the Arab League to align itself with the American and European position without realistically and genuinely assessing the crisis is a big mistake, and we must hold it to account for this. Overthrowing Assad and his regime need not be [achieved] through Western military intervention. There are [other] ways, involving diplomatic action, to steer the Syrian [ship] to harbor. [But] this will happen [only] if the Arab League takes the initiative and avoids favoring one side at the expense of the other. I think this will happen only of the Arab League leadership is replaced."[12]

The revolving door of "the inter-Arab dialogue on the attack on Syria" (Al-Ahram, Egypt, September 3, 2013)

Iraqi Columnist: The Arab League Did Not Lift A Finger During Many Crises In The Arab World

Iraqi journalist Kazem Fenjan Al-Hamami likewise criticized the ineptness of the Arab League in confronting the Syrian problem, and added that this is not the first time it had failed to lift a finger during crises in the Arab world. He wrote: "Even Arab organizations dealing with tourism, recreation, and the mourning of the dead have voiced their opinion on the disasters befalling Syria – yet the secretary-general of our Arab League has not uttered a peep [about it]. Even the local and international unions of coffee shops and markets chimed in on the Western military force that is gathering to pulverize Syria with deadly missiles – yet Nabil Al-Arabi is fast asleep. Even the owners of pizzerias, bake shops, Halabi kibbeh shops, and pickle and fava-bean stalls have voiced their objection to the destructive American plans for resolving the crises in the Arab states, while our Arab League took refuge in complete silence...

"The [Arab] League... was never able to heal the rift [among the Arabs] or bring them closer together in their views. Worse, it [often] took the position of an observer in severe crises that beset us, and did not lift a finger. Its role has been confined to issuing foolish statements and voicing political positions that fluctuated between truth and falsehood.

"The Arab League's [role] was so empty and absent that some Arab states began asking foreign forces, openly or in secret, to intervene in their internal affairs and to protect their borders and sovereignty. Some began bragging about the presence of American bases on their soil, or about their great ports that host huge American and British fleets. The weakness of the Arab League was clearly evident during the third Gulf War [in 2003, when it failed to confront the] foreign intervention in the region and the war [that was declared] on Iraq with the excuse that it had weapons of mass destruction. That war was the last nail in the coffin of the Arab League, after it failed to achieve the objectives for which it was formed and which are stated in its charter."[13]

[1] Al-Safir (Lebanon), Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London),, September 2, 2013.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 2, 2013.

[3], September 1, 2013.

[4], September 1, 2013.

[5] Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 2, 2013.

[6] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 2, 2013. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi himself made sure to clarify, on the day following the meeting, that the Syrian crisis would be resolved according to the [2012] Geneva Accord, and that "a military solution is unthinkable.", September 2, 2013.

[7] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 809, The Decline of the Arab League – The Syrian Crisis as a Test Case March 12, 2012.

[8] Al-Hayat (London), September 1, 2013.

[9] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), September 2, 2013.

[10] Al-Raya (Qatar), September 2, 2013.

[11] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 1, 2013.

[12] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), September 1, 2013.

[13], September 1, 2013.

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