Next steps in doubt when Arab mission in Syria ends

CAIRO Mon Jan 16, 2012 5:58pm EST

CAIRO (Reuters) - After weeks of observing bloodshed in Syria armed with nothing but pens, Arab League monitors will report on Friday that Damascus has failed to fully implement a peace plan. Now what?

In the short-term, the League will have to decide on the fate of its monitoring mission, whose mandate expires on Thursday. It can either be scrapped, extended or possibly beefed up to include more observers and even an armed element.

In the longer term, Arab states will have to decide what sort of punishment they are prepared to inflict on Syria's President Bashar al-Assad for failing to halt 10 months of violence.

Qatar has proposed sending in Arab troops, in what would be one of the boldest moves ever taken by the 67-year-old Arab League. But Arab League sources say it could be difficult to rally support for such a move, which would face resistance from Arab rulers allied to Damascus or worried about unrest at home.

If the League cannot agree action on its own, Arab states will be under increasing pressure to give their blessing to wider international measures. But the West has so far shown no stomach for the sort of intervention it mustered last year to help topple Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

The first decision Arab leaders will have to take is whether to extend the monitoring mission's mandate beyond Thursday.

The mission's critics say its month-long investigation has made the situation in Syria worse by doing little to halt violence while buying the government of President Bashar al-Assad more time to continue a crackdown on opponents.

At least three of the monitors have reported humanitarian suffering taking place in Syria, with the observers unable to do anything to stop it.

In that light, some countries will be reluctant to extend the mission in its present form, said a delegate to the Cairo-based League from one Arab state.

But others believe the monitors have done some good, and will oppose withdrawing them, he said.

"The third scenario will be to increase the number of monitors to 3,000 and include some security elements that have more ability to stop violent operations."

TOUGH POSITION

When the Arab League suspended Syria, threatened sanctions, came up with a peace plan and agreed to send in observers to monitor compliance, it seemed the 22-member body - long derided as little more than a talking shop - had overcome internal rivalries to lead Arab affairs.

Just months on, the League is in a tough position, with its monitors having failed to deter violence but with little consensus on what next steps to take.

The Arab League's peace plan called for an immediate halt to violence, for Syrian troops to withdraw from cities, for the release of political prisoners detained during the uprising and for freer access for monitors and media.

The monitoring team set up in December was given about one month to report whether Syria was implementing the plan.

A preliminary report by the monitors earlier in January found the violence, which the United Nations says has killed over 5,000 people, had slightly eased. But days later, Assad made a live address in which he mocked the League and vowed to intensify his crackdown on protesters.

Three bombs have gone off in Syria since December 23, after an advance monitoring team arrived. Some 11 monitors have been hurt after coming under attack from pro-Assad demonstrators, and a French journalist was killed by grenade or mortar fire in a pro-government area of the restive city of Homs.

Syria blamed the blasts on terrorists. Assad's opponents say attacks were the work of Syria's intelligence services trying to undermine the opposition, hamper the monitors and offer Arab detractors and foreign journalists a taste of how nasty things could get if pressure rises on Assad.

DIVISIONS OVER ESCALATION

In a bid to ratchet up pressure on Syria, Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani told the U.S. broadcaster CBS "Some troops should go to stop the killing."

He gave no details on what shape such a force might take, but League sources cast doubt on whether such an escalation would attract support from other Gulf states, let alone Syria's neighbors Lebanon and Iraq, which oppose action against Assad.

Qatar, which was one of the Arab belligerents in the war against Gaddafi's Libya, has led the charge against Assad. Also taking a stand is regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which analysts say is keen to weaken its Gulf rival Iran by isolating Assad, Tehran's chief Arab ally.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia can usually rely on support from other Gulf Arab monarchies. But one Arab League source said Oman and Bahrain were starting to "reconsider their position" in light of protests at home. Another source added Kuwait to the list of Gulf states that appeared to be getting cold feet.

Analysts have said that Arab governments which allow little dissent are uneasy about piling pressure on a fellow autocrat, lest they eventually face the same fate.

"Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which both seem to be against the Syrian regime, need the support of almost all the Gulf states... to be able to pass stricter measures on Syria, which will be hard to get given the tension rising in some of those states now like... in Bahrain and Kuwait," a source close to League said.

A frustrated Arab League could decide finally to impose the sanctions that it threatened in November, when Assad refused to sign the Arab peace deal. But sanctions take time to work and many people question their effectiveness.

"Sanctions don't do anything. What have sanctions done in the Iraqi situation?" an Arab official said. "Tell me any sanctions regime that brought instant results."

With Arab resolve faltering, Assad's defiance of the League's peace plan could drag the crisis back onto the international stage.

The United States has said the monitors could not stay in Syria forever while violence continued. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Sunday the "old order" of one-man rule in the Arab world was ending.

But so far the West has shown no sign of backing the sort of military intervention it launched last year against Gaddafi. Back then, NATO air strikes had the Arab League's blessing and the authorization of the U.N. Security Council.

Russia and China have so far blocked even mild steps at the Security Council against Syria.

A previous suggestion by Qatar that U.N. observers be asked to bolster the Arab team, giving it more clout, was rejected at the last meeting of the League's Syria group earlier this month.

Another Arab delegate had suggested to Reuters last week that the civilian observer team could be supported by an armed intervention force comprised of soldiers not just from Arab states but also from other Muslim countries.

Syria's opposition transitional council wants the Arab League to refer Syria to the U.N. Security Council. But if world powers wanted to act, it is not the Arab League that is holding them back, said the Arab official who questioned the effectiveness of sanctions.

"Legally and politically, the Security Council does not wait for instructions from the Arab League," the official said. "What is suggested - that the Arab League is the obstacle to Security Council action - is not true."

(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair and Lin Noueihed in Cairo, Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Peter Graff)

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