The Arab League Mission to Syria has elicited little more than disappointment and disdains since it started its monitoring work several weeks ago. For many observers, the Mission has been wholly ineffective, a criticism supported by the Mission’s failure to achieve even a temporary reprieve in violence during its tour of the country.
Now the Arab League has issued a statement, demanding that Bashar Al-Assad transfer power to a Vice-President and calling for elections to be held under a national unity government. As Al Jazeera reports:
The Arab League has called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to delegate power to his vice president, and for elections to be held under a “national unity government”.
The bloc’s members agreed on a political initiative for a unity government and early elections to end the crisis in Syria, the Qatari Prime Minister said after a meeting of the 22-member body in Cairo on Sunday.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said the League will ask the UN Security Council to support its plan for transition.
“After the establishment of the government of national unity, there has to be a referendum and preparation for new elections. The Arab League’s Secretary-General is to send a new special envoy to Syria, and will call on the international community to support this national unity government to fulfill its functions,” PM al-Thani said.
He also reiterated the Arab League’s demands that the violence in Syria be brought to an end, that political detainees be released, that the Syrian military pull out of cities and that citizens be allowed to demonstrate peacefully.
The League has called on the opposition and government to begin a new round of dialogue “within two weeks”.
The Arab League deal bears substantial similarities to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, which sought to end the standoff between the Yemeni government and opposition groups. That deal, which called for Saleh to hand over power to his Vice President, the formation of a national unity government, and immediate elections, was signed by the President in early December.
So far, the GCC Initiative has yielded few tangible results. Saleh has flip-flopped between staying and leaving the country. Although he now appears finally to be traveling to the United States for “medical treatment,” he has promised to return to the country to lead a political party. A number of opposition groups have rejected the deal for a number of reasons, including their exclusions from the negotiations process and the Initiative’s inclusion of a controversial immunity deal for the President. While a national unity government has been nominally formed and Presidential elections are slated for February 21, 2012, Saleh’s Vice President is the only candidate currently standing for President, and is expected to run uncontested. Meanwhile, opposition groups continue to protest the transition deal.
Why would things be any different for Syria? In fact, the situation in Syria seems to make the Arab League deal particularly unlikely to succeed. The state-sanctioned brutality in Yemen cannot compare to the levels of extreme violence that have reportedly taken place in Syria and that make the process of reconciliation with the government particularly daunting. Unlike Yemen, opposition groups inside Syria are largely operating undercover or in hiding. As such, any negotiations with Syria’s opposition groups will likely see the Syrian National Council (SNC), the country’s most vocal opposition group, taking a prominent role. The SNC exists outside of the country and has an uncertain level of support inside Syria – its authority to enter into any deal on behalf of the Syrian people remains dubious at best. Finally, unlike Saleh, Assad has few friends either in the region or abroad and is unlikely to see any tangible benefits to stepping down.
In the end, the Arab League proposal likely presents little more than a mirage of peace and transition. Even if Assad were to accept the deal, which he is unlikely to do, this formulaic response to Syria’s uprising echoes the recent failures of the GCC Initiative and is unlikely to bring any true progress to resolving the Syrian conflict.