Syria mission a litmus test for Arab League action

As the first group of monitors toured on the ground this week, Bashar Al Assad¿s regime has not let up on its brutal crackdown on protesters. If the tour fails, further military intervention to remove the president may be called upon.

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CAIRO // The success or failure of the Arab League observer team in Syria is likely to determine whether the organisation would undertake similar missions in the future.

Of more immediate concern is that failure of the mission would likely generate more calls for international military intervention to remove the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, just as months-long Nato air strikes crippled Muammar Qaddafi's forces, helping Libya's revolutionaries topple his 42-year-old regime in October.

Already, the signs are not good for the mission in Syria.

Mr Al Assad's regime has pressed on with its brutal crackdown on protesters even as the first batch of 60 monitors worked on the ground in flashpoint cities this week. The Syrian opposition responded by branding the mission a farce used by Mr Al Assad as cover to continue his security operations. The opposition called for the removal of the mission's Sudanese head, General Ahmed Mustafa Al Dabi, who served in security positions under Omar Al Bashir. The Sudanese president faces international charges of committing genocide in Darfur.

Arab League officials and Syrian opposition leaders also seem to be at odds over the mandate of the monitors' mission.

An Arab League official said on Thursday that the monitors' job is to observe and report back to the league's secretary general and not to intervene. The opposition insists the monitors' are there to verify the compliance of the Al Assad regime with the provisions of the peace plan, which Damascus has largely ignored.

The plan requires the removal of security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, the initation of talks with opposition leaders, the release of political prisoners and opening the country to human rights workers and journalists. The only measure taken so far has been the release of 900 prisoners - a fraction of the 10,000 believed to have been detained since March.

The opposition's criticism of the mission is rooted in large part in the desire by protesters to see the international community step in for protection and their frustration with months of inaction to stop the bloodshed.

The Arab League had a long-time policy of not interfering in the internal disputes of member nations, saying it was up to citizens and the government to deal with their problems.

This year, perhaps in a bid to match the spirit of the Arab Spring, the league did away with this policy, withdrawing its support of the Qaddafi regime and suspending Libya's membership.

While the league suspended Syria's membership in November, officials say it can not be dealt with in the same way as Libya because the unrest there was more complicated.

There is a concern from the opposition and rights groups that the mission is too dependent on logistics provided by the regime. The league has said this would change when member states make good on promises of support such as all-terrain vehicles and communication equipment.

The choice of the Sudan regime's Gen Al Dabi is also proving controversial and threatens to discredit the entire mission.

Although he is not formally charged with any crimes in Darfur, he served as Mr Al Bashir's point man in the western region at a time when the Khartoum government was starting to organise the Janjaweed, the name given to pro-government militiamen blamed for many of the atrocities committed against Darfurians.

Gen Al Dabi's public comments so far on the mission have been far from encouraging.

It has been a week since the advance team from the Arab League monitoring group arrived in Syria and it is already embroiled in controversy. Gen Al Dabi has come under criticism after describing the situation in Homs as "reassuring" following a brief visit there on Tuesday.

In Syria yesterday, video footage recorded by residents in Homs had shown Gen Al Dabi being taken through a ravaged part of the city, while his monitors were shown hiding in doorways as gunfire sounded, and talking to a man who had brought his dead son, apparently shot by security forces, for them to examine.

Mr Al Dabi's comment - and his association with a war in Darfur that killed 300,000 - had led to calls by opposition activists for him to be replaced but yesterday the mission issued a statement saying attribution of that remark to him was "unfounded and untrue".

All future statements to the media would be made in writing, the mission said, an apparent recognition of how politically charged anything the observers say and do is, with both the authorities and anti-regime protesters hoping the League will support their version of events.

Alex de Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, interviewed Gen Al Dabi for a book on Darfur he co-authored in 2008. He said the decision to have Gen Al Dabi lead the mission was peculiar because Sudan has other officials "who would have been credible and effective monitors for respect for rights in Syria. General Al Dabi is not one of them".

* With additional reporting from Phil Sands in Damascus