Credibility test for Arab League in Syria mission

The observer mission in Syria has to take action to maintain the Arab League's credibility on the issue.

The first observers dispatched by the Arab League to monitor the situation in Syria arrived on Thursday. The following day, more than 40 people were killed in two suicide car-bomb attacks against intelligence agencies in Damascus.

This mission should mark a turning point in the Syrian crisis, deterring further bloodshed and holding the regime accountable for continued violence. For that to be true, however, the Arab League has to show its determination for fair and comprehensive reporting.

The choice of the mission's leader, Gen Muhammad Ahmad Al Dabi, is not particularly promising. The Sudanese general is accused of training elements of the Janjaweed, the Arab militias that have been responsible for crimes against civilians in Darfur. Whether this is true or not, it has already raised doubts about the mission.

Hopes were high that the presence of the observers would lead to a decrease in the violence. This still may be true - only today will observers begin to visit the worst-hit areas. Although logistical arrangements take time, every delay is costing lives.

The protocols that Syria has signed give observers permission to visit every area of the country. We hope that includes an immediate mission to Homs where the Bab Amr neighbourhood reportedly was under heavy attack for the third consecutive day yesterday. The president of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghalioun, has accused the regime of "annihilating" civilians in the neighbourhood.

This is the same conduct that the Arab League so strongly condemned when it suspended Syria's membership last month. That action was seen by many as a sign that the League was prepared for a more robust international role. It will only be meaningful if it is followed by action.

There is no doubt that Damascus will try to manipulate the mission to its own ends. And the confusion after last week's bombings demonstrated that unknown parties are conducting a deliberate campaign of misinformation: Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya satellite channels were partially jammed, and there was a botched attempt to clone a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood website and attribute responsibility to Islamists.

The observers must recognise the gravity of their mission. Any action against the Syrian regime will hinge on their findings. If they fail, the chances for armed resistance and sectarian strife will worsen. This mission, the first of its kind for the Arab League, is also a test of its changing role in the region.