The Arab League’s observer mission in Syria is coming under criticism a mere couple of days after its initial deployment, as the regime of Bashar al-Assad continues to gun down its opponents, seemingly unfettered.
Already, France has cast doubts on the effectiveness of the mission while the US has wavered between a cautious wait-and-see attitude and an unspecific threat to consider “other means to protect Syrian civilians.”
The lack of a credible, clearly articulated Plan B has been a critical problem in the Obama administration’s Syria policy. So far, Washington has viewed the Arab League’s initiative as a possible vehicle for a peaceful transition that would require no direct foreign intervention or further US involvement.
An anonymous Arab League official explained this line of thinking, which is shared by some Arab governments. “The League wants regime change but at the lowest possible cost,” the official, who is skeptical about the monitor mission, said on Tuesday. He then laid out the scenario envisioned by those who supported the League’s initiative: “If the regime implements the removal of tanks and troops from the streets, 10 million Syrians will take to the streets and occupy all main squares, making the regime’s collapse a matter of time.”
This was the Obama administration’s hope as well. But as that Arab official proceeded to note, “Assad will never allow this, and the Arab League will be accused by more Syrians of complicity.” And that is precisely where we find ourselves today, with some prominent Arab commentators making that exact same argument.
Consequently, one could deduce precisely why the Russians advised Assad to sign the League’s initiative. In the weeks of haggling that preceded the signature, a group of states in the Arab League led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar were pushing to refer the Syrian case to the UN Security Council. But, according to some Arab officials, other League members remained wary of foreign intervention, and the observer mission was “their best compromise.”
There is, therefore, a divide within the Arab League that the Russians and Assad may have sensed they could exploit to prevent the emergence of a consensus calling for further, international action against the regime. If the Gulf Arab states were seeking referral to the Security Council, another camp, led by Egypt, was more invested in the success of the monitor mission, believing it could lead to more popular protests that may force Assad’s departure.
One risk now is that these states, which include Sudan – whose former head of military intelligence is leading the monitor mission – will hesitate to declare the mission a failure, allowing Assad more room to maneuver.
While it may be slightly premature to speculate about how this process will unfold, it is safe to say that the administration’s desire for the Arab League to take the lead on Syria simply won’t pan out as initially hoped.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: what is the Obama administration’s plan after the likely failure of the Arab League initiative?
Foreign Policy reported yesterday that top officials in the administration are “quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition,” including “preparing for another major diplomatic initiative,” whose details remain unclear.
The preparation of these contingency plans emanates from the recognition that the scenario reportedly espoused by the Egyptians – and until recently, the Obama administration itself – is unlikely to come to pass. However, none of these plans involve intervention in any form, which raises questions about their effectiveness.
In fact, one administration official even said bluntly that Washington was “intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing.” One critic of the administration’s policy recently called this approach “masterful inaction.”
In the Arab divide between those (Gulf) states seeking international intervention and those wary of it, the Obama administration continues to fall on the side of the latter. Even as it realizes that “the status quo is unsustainable”, the administration believes that “the risks of moving too fast [are] higher than the risks of moving too slow.”
We are, therefore, in a waiting period. The Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi may have said it best: “We are all buying time, not only the Syrian regime [but also] the Arab League, the Turks, the Arabs in general… They’re avoiding the inevitable, which is direct involvement in Syria.”
He, of course, is not alone in this assessment. Earlier this month, Congressman Steve Chabot told the administration’s point man on Syria, Frederic Hof, essentially the same thing: “ultimately [physical force] is probably going to be necessary.”
In the end, there is one constant, recurring theme. While the Obama administration entertains hopes that regional states would take the lead, in reality, these governments are waiting for the US to assume its traditional leadership role. Whether it’s Turkey or the Arab League, everyone, one way or another, is throwing the issue back at Washington. The notion that the US can remain above the fray in Syria and still shape an outcome in line with its interests was never a realistic option.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.