A league of many

The Arab League’s decision on Sunday to give the Syrian government and “all opposition groups” 15 days to enter into dialogue under its guidance will probably not reduce tension on Syrian streets. In fact, as Arab League delegates were hammering out their decision, 37 Syrian pro-democracy protesters were killed by regime forces, according to reports, and dozens more have been killed since.
The league’s decision was poorly received by opposition supporters, both those in Syria and those gathered outside the Arab League headquarters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Many of those demonstrating were calling for Syria to be suspended from the league. Indeed, protesters in Syria have dedicated this Friday's demonstrations to the martyrs who died and who will die during the 15-day period the Arab League gave the regime. 

Speaking to An-Nahar, Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi explained why the body did not suspend Syria. “[The] predominant trend among the ministers was that a decision of such kind might make the situation worse and might lead to the Arab League not being able to play any future role in the crisis,” he told the daily.

Syrian state television responded to the 22-member league’s push for dialogue by saying the government in Damascus “is capable of running its own affairs and security.” Moreover, on Wednesday official Syrian daily Ath-Thawra accused the Arab League of “following the agenda of aggressors like the United States, Israel and their European allies," and of trying to “destabilize Syria” after the organization urged Damascus to open up to dialogue.

Meanwhile, prominent figures in the Syrian National Council, which represents opposition groups, feel the league’s decision did not go far enough and that Syria should have been suspended from the organization.

The SNC has been resolutely opposed to dialogue with the regime since its creation earlier this month. In an interview with Al-Akhbar published Monday, SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun reiterated this stance. “We are only prepared to negotiate with those elements in the regime that do not have blood on their hands [and] over one single issue: how to transfer power, dismantle the existing regime, and begin a transition to democracy in Syria,” he said.

As part of the call for a national dialogue within 15 days, the Arab League planned to send a delegation to Damascus to further discuss the situation in the country. On Thursday, Syria agreed to host the delegation, which is scheduled to arrive on October 23.

Regardless, the likelihood of a dialogue taking place between the Syrian government and all opposition groups within the allocated timeframe is slim. If it fails, then, what is the league likely to do next?

Al-Hayat journalist Mohammad al-Shadly, who covers the Arab League extensively, told NOW Lebanon on Thursday that as he saw it, “It will be very possible that the decisions to suspend Syria and recognize the [SNC] will be taken [after the 15-day period].”

If this happens, it will prompt further international action and will be another stepping stone to the regime’s demise, according to exiled SNC member Omar Edelby. “The only way to deal with such a regime... is to step up pressure,” he told NOW Lebanon. “First, through the league, then following with the international community.”

In order for the Arab League to suspend Syria, it needs the backing of two-thirds, or 14, of its members. According to Shadly, it is extremely unlikely the issue will be brought to the table unless the support of the 14 members is all but guaranteed. And unlike the decision to suspend Libya earlier this year, the question of Syria’s suspension from the league is extremely divisive.

Shadly predicts the six Gulf Cooperation Council members will spearhead the motion, backed up by the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Somalia, the State of Palestine, Tunisia and Libya (the sole country to have recognized the SNC). Among those opposing the motion to suspend Syria’s membership, he expects to see Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen.

Jordan, Mauritania and Morocco, meanwhile, have been more ambiguous about the stance they are likely to take should it come down to a vote.

If it comes to it, Shadly expects Jordan and Morocco to support the motion but is uncertain about Mauritania. “I have heard that Syria is undergoing some talks with the country… Their stance is vague,” he added.

The 15-day period ends October 31.