Middle East

Syria monitors' report awaited at UN Security Council

Arab League observers take photos of an anti-government march in the province of Idlib
Image caption The Arab League monitors' mission has been criticized as ineffective

For the UN Security Council, much is at stake when it comes to the Arab League's monitors in Syria.

There are two broad but opposing positions in the Council. Both have tied their policies to the fate of the mission, which was given a month to observe Syria's compliance with an Arab peace plan, and is expected to report back this week.

In essence, the divide is over whether the Security Council should get involved in the Syrian crisis.

On one side are Western nations (in particular Britain, France, the United States and Germany) which see the conflict as appalling government repression of peaceful protesters. They seek a strong condemnation of Damascus and punitive action such as sanctions or an arms embargo.

On the other side are states led by Russia, which is intent on protecting its considerable strategic interests with a long-time Arab ally.

But it also believes that any Council intervention would have a hidden and counter-productive agenda of ousting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and fears a scenario where the UN backs one side in a civil war, as it claims happened in Libya.

Russia is supported by countries such as China, India and South Africa, which worry that any outside intervention would make a bad situation worse. They want the UN to stick to calls for political dialogue and prefer to leave the mediation in Arab hands.

Russian resistance

Hence the importance of how the Arab League judges its mission, and what it decides to do next.

It might bow to growing criticism that its monitors are failing to stem the violence in Syria and refer the matter to the Security Council. Council members give considerable weight to regional requests, and Western powers believe such a clear signal could break Russian resistance to UN action.

"We might have a chance of avoiding a Russian veto only if we get a public and official request for action from the Arab League," says French Ambassador Gerard Araud. "That is certainly a necessary condition, although I don't know if it is a sufficient one."

But the Arab League could also decide to continue and bolster its mission, strengthening the hand of Russia, which has argued that the monitors are helping to stabilise the situation.

"We think they've established a foothold there," says Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. "They're in a better position than initially to have a restraining influence, so we hope they will continue beyond (one month) and as long as it takes for the political crisis to be brought to a halt."

Arab divisions

It is not only the Security Council that is divided: members of the Arab League are also far apart.

Qatar is leading the drive against Syria, with quiet support from Gulf states. Others like Algeria, Iraq and, according to a Western diplomat, even Egypt may oppose any referral to the Council.

Arab differences mirror the UN debate over the need for outside intervention and the desirability of regime change, even though they couch their concerns in the language of human rights.

Analysts say the Sunni Muslim Gulf states see the end of the Assad regime as an opportunity to weaken Syria's Shia Muslim ally Iran, which they perceive as a growing regional threat.

Other Arab governments see the end of the regime ushering in a sectarian and civil war that could suck in players from Israel to Iran. For them, supporting the Arab mission is a way of avoiding any international action that could contribute to the break-up of Syria: not necessarily through a Libya-like Nato operation but through punishing sanctions, no-fly or buffer zones, or the creation of safe havens for the opposition.

'Fuzzy outcome'

For these states, the emergence of an armed resistance in Syria is every bit as alarming as the government's repression.

Image caption Some Arab countries say the monitors are having trouble with the armed resistance

"The feeling is that the Syrian government is in the process of making more of an effort, but the Arab League is especially having problems with the armed opposition and is not managing to penetrate neighbourhoods that are today belonging to the opposition," Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci told journalists at the UN recently.

Given these divisions, the Arab League foreign ministers may be unable to come to a definitive conclusion about their monitoring mission when they meet at the weekend.

"The most likely (scenario) is a fuzzy outcome," says one Western diplomat, "but then we would have to take stock of our options: we are not planning to let this drop."

Indeed, the West cannot afford to let Syria drop.

Some of the ideas floating around here include requesting a special envoy of the Secretary General for Syria, or bringing the Qatari prime minister and Arab League secretary general to New York to brief the Security Council.

But that would be no substitute for the strong resolution condemning and perhaps sanctioning the Syrian government that Western states believe is long overdue.

Yet the bottom line remains that the strength of any Council action will depend on the strength of an Arab League mandate. And without a clear Arab referral to the UN, Western nations will likely face a Russian veto for anything other than the weakest of resolutions.

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