Suspending the Arab League observer mission’s investigations and interventions is the worst thing to happen at this critical time in Syria, argues Sharmine Narwani.
On December 19, 2011 the Syrian Arab Republic and the Arab League signed a protocol establishing an observer mission that would lead efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria and protect civilians in the process.
Almost immediately afterward, once-staunch advocates of this Arab League “intervention” in Syria began efforts instead to undermine the mission.
Before signing the final deal, an Arab League official had warned me that certain member states – Qatar, most prominently – were setting up conditions that would preclude the participation of the Syrian government. But intense shuttle diplomacy at the eleventh hour produced a breakthrough: the mission was approved by the two parties, and the disappointed parties launched a public relations blitz to cast doubt on the mission’s participants, the Arab League’s capabilities and the investigation’s discoveries.
For the last month, we have heard allegations about the Sudanese Head of Mission Lieutenant General Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, now suddenly accused of war crimes. Rumors abounded about mission observers quitting their posts because of the “horrific” nature of the Syrian government’s onslaught against its civilians. International NGOs and a slew of western politicians even offered to “train” the mission observers – implicitly suggesting that Arabs lack observation and negotiation capabilities, or worse perhaps, that the observers need to be taught to view the Syrian conflict through external lenses.
It was hard to doubt these rumors entirely. The Arab League has, after all, refused to make the final monitors’ report available to the general media. But the report has suddenly appeared as an annex to the UN resolution on Syria currently being debated at the Security Council. Most puzzling though, is that few Western or Arab journalists congregated at the United Nations this week are drawing attention to this critical document that provides insight into the very events contested at Council sessions.
Mission Report: The Good, Bad and Ugly
The full monitor’s report of the Arab League refers in several instances to efforts aimed at undermining the mission and its activities:
“Since it began its work, the Mission has been the target of a vicious media campaign…that increased in intensity after the observers’ deployment. Some media outlets have published unfounded statements, which they attributed to the Head of the Mission. They have also grossly exaggerated events…Such contrived reports have helped to increase tensions among the Syrian people and undermined the observers’ work. Some media organizations were exploited in order to defame the Mission and its Head and cause the Mission to fail.”
The effort to “defame” the mission – ostensibly by opponents of the Syrian government – is a strange one. The report – while short – is professionally written, detailed, and highlights the difficulties inherent in covering a hard-fought conflict. It also criticizes the Syrian regime’s actions and shortcomings in sticking to the protocol and protecting civilians:
“On being assigned to their zones and starting work, the observers witnessed acts of violence perpetrated by government forces and an exchange of gunfire with armed elements in Homs and Hama. As a result of the Mission’s insistence on a complete end to violence and the withdrawal of army vehicles and equipment, this problem has receded.”
On the critical issue of political detainees, the report states: “On 19 January 2012, the Syrian government stated that 3,569 detainees had been released from military and civil prosecution services. The Mission verified that 1,669 of those detained had thus far been released. It continues to follow up the issue with the government and the opposition, emphasizing to the government side that the detainees should be released in the presence of observers so that the event can be documented.” The report also verifies that an additional 3,843 detainees were released before Syrian President Bashar Assad issued a general amnesty decree on January 15. The government claims the number is 4,035.
But then the report veers sharply away from conventional narratives about the nature of the Syrian conflict by observing: “The Mission determined that there is an armed entity that is not mentioned in the protocol.”
Though the report attributes this development “to the excessive use of force by Syrian government forces in response to protests,” it also points out that “in some zones, this armed entity reacted by attacking Syrian security forces and citizens, causing the government to respond with further violence.”
The report then provides several examples of this:
“In Homs and Dera‘a, the Mission observed armed groups committing acts of violence against government forces, resulting in death and injury among their ranks. In certain situations, government forces responded to attacks against their personnel with force. The observers noted that some of the armed groups were using flares and armour-piercing projectiles.”
“In Homs, Idlib and Hama, the Observer Mission witnessed acts of violence being committed against government forces and civilians that resulted in several deaths and injuries. Examples of those acts include the bombing of a civilian bus, killing eight persons and injuring others, including women and children, and the bombing of a train carrying diesel oil. In another incident in Homs, a police bus was blown up, killing two police officers. A fuel pipeline and some small bridges were also bombed.”
Media Coverage and Access In Syria
Notable too is the mission report’s contention that media reports on incidents of violence in Syria are often exaggerated and unverified:
“The Mission noted that many parties falsely reported that explosions or violence had occurred in several locations. When the observers went to those locations, they found that those reports were unfounded. The Mission also noted that, according to its teams in the field, the media exaggerated the nature of the incidents and the number of persons killed in incidents and protests in certain towns.”
The report also addresses criticism that the Syrian government restricts media access both into Syria and into the country’s hot spots. Complaints varied from media being allowed into the country for an insufficient “four days” to the regime demanding cumbersome “destination” itineraries, “operating permits” and “movement restrictions.”
The report provides a list naming the various individual journalists and media organizations entering Syria during the mission’s mandate, and concludes: “The government had accredited 147 Arab and foreign media organizations. Some 112 of those organizations entered Syrian territory, joining the 90 other accredited organizations operating in Syria through their full-time correspondents.”
I should note that I was in Syria doing research for some articles during the Mission’s investigations and that I am not on the list. While my own visa was arranged through a connected non-Syrian friend, I know of other writers who entered the country without incident. I spent my time there freely interviewing many opposition groups and individuals and was at no time accompanied by government minders – or monitored, to the best of my knowledge.
Less fortunate was Gilles Jacqiuer, the France 2 Channel cameraman who was killed during a visit to a pro-regime neighborhood in Homs. The French government has loudly sought to implicate the Syrian government in this killing, but the Mission says that “Mission reports from Homs indicate that the French journalist was killed by opposition mortar shells.”
The report also refers to controversial statements made by several monitors who abandoned their positions and publicly criticized the mission afterward. Probably the most memorable of these is Algerian Anwar Malek who famously claimed on Al Jazeera: "What I saw was a humanitarian disaster…The regime is not just committing one war crime, but a series of crimes against its people. The snipers are everywhere, shooting at civilians. People are being kidnapped. Prisoners are being tortured and none were released."
The Arab League released a terse statement in response, saying Malek’s allegation “does not relate to the truth in any way," and claiming instead, that "since he was assigned to the Homs team, Malek did not leave the hotel for six days and did not go out with the rest of the team into the field giving the excuse that he was sick."
The report further expounds: “Some observers reneged on their duties and broke the oath they had taken. They made contact with officials from their countries and gave them exaggerated accounts of events. Those officials consequently developed a bleak and unfounded picture of the situation.”
Mission Success or Failure?
The report concludes with some pessimism: because of early logistical and other difficulties, the mission only operated for 23 days out of its month-long mandate. There is a need for better transportation, communication equipment – and most importantly – the necessary “media and political support” to complete its mandate.
On a positive note, the Mission stresses that the Syrian regime “strived to help it succeed in its task and remove any barriers that might stand in its way. The government also facilitated meetings with all parties. No restrictions were placed on the movement of the Mission and its ability to interview Syrian citizens, both those who opposed the government and those loyal to it.”
Most critically, however, the report recommends a change in the Protocol’s mandate, namely, the “commitment of all sides to cease all acts of violence.” This, for the first time, introduces the notion that the Syrian government may not be entirely responsible for the civilian casualty numbers flaunted in media reports. And it is an important point – regular soldiers reportedly account for approximately 2,000 deaths in the country since March 2011.
But the observers warn: “Recently, there have been incidents that could widen the gap and increase bitterness between the parties. These incidents can have grave consequences and lead to the loss of life and property. Such incidents include the bombing of buildings, trains carrying fuel, vehicles carrying diesel oil and explosions targeting the police, members of the media and fuel pipelines. Some of those attacks have been carried out by the Free Syrian Army and some by other armed opposition groups.”
The "citizens" of Syria they met – some of whom suffer from "extreme tension, oppression and injustice" – “believe the crisis should be resolved peacefully through Arab mediation alone, without international intervention. Doing so would allow them to live in peace and complete the reform process and bring about the change they desire.”
This is a narrative that is entirely missing in the mainstream media’s coverage of the Syrian crisis. The complicity of armed groups in escalating the violence initially started by the Syrian government; the compliance of the regime in advancing the Arab League Protocol’s demands; the rejection by ordinary citizens of internationalizing and militarizing the conflict.
Read the mission report. Conclude what you will. But admit that possibly the worst thing that can be done at this critical juncture is to suspend the Arab League mission’s investigations and interventions. If the mission is completely halted, civilians will lose protection in this conflict, facts will be hard to come by, and intermediaries on the ground in Syria will be nonexistent. Violence escalated after the mission took its leave to file the report. Inserting them back into the ring is unarguably the right course of action, particularly as it appears the UN Security Council is, today, at an impasse.
*[A version of this article was originally publish by Al Akhbar English].