Middle East

Tough dilemma for Arab League over Syria

Anti-regime protesters in Idlib, near the Turkish borders, demanding the Arab League suspend Syria - 11 November 2011
Image caption Mass rallies in Syria demand the Arab League suspend Syria's membership.

The headquarters of the Arab League is just a few hundred metres from Tahrir Square, in the centre of Cairo.

The effects of the demonstrations there, that unseated President Mubarak earlier this year, are still reverberating round the organisation's headquarters.

For many years the Arab League was mocked, as the epitome of all that was wrong in the old Arab world.

It was seen as a body given to making grand statements, which only thinly veiled its powerlessness and its deep divisions.

But earlier this year, the surprise decision of the league to endorse a no-fly zone over Libya dramatically changed that assessment.

The move was crucial in building up pressure for a UN resolution, which in turn led to the Nato military intervention in Libya.

Huge divisions

Nervous of their restive populations, Arab governments had made a collective decision that, for once, changed history.

Now they face an even tougher dilemma over the situation in Syria.

It took months of violence inside Syria, before the Arab League spoke out. Since then, the organisation has been increasingly outspoken.

Just under two weeks ago it negotiated a peace plan with Syria, which, if implemented, would have made a huge difference to the situation there.

Syria pledged to end violence against protesters, pull back its tanks, release political prisoners, and move quickly to open a political dialogue with the opposition.

Image caption Despite Syria agreeing to the peace plan, protesters continue to be killed.

But while Syria claims to be putting the plan into action, there's little obvious sign of it on the ground.

So the Arab League once again faces the danger of being written off as irrelevant and powerless.

Once again there are huge divisions, between those Arab governments who represent the old order, and the countries which may now be moving to democracy.

But even the most conservative governments have realised that the situation in Syria has become dangerous to their own survival.

The dilemma for the members of the Arab League is how to wield their limited power.

Many Syrian opposition supporters want it to expel Syria.

It would be a bitter blow to a country proud of its support for pan-Arabism, and it could increase pressure for tough UN action, though no-one is expecting a Libyan-style military intervention.

But the move would also mark the end of the Arab League's role in the crisis. Once Syria was out of the League, that would be it.

So it seems that for the moment, the members of the League are reluctant to go that far.

Suspicious as they are of Syria's intentions, they are still working with its government, and with opposition groups, to try to encourage political dialogue.

No-one in the League has any illusions about the chances of success, and the suspension of Syria from membership may eventually become inevitable.

But it is clear that the Arab countries that make up the League want to exhaust every option before they take that radical step.

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