CAIRO (Reuters) - After months of silence, Arabs are showing old formulas in the region no longer apply. The Arab League, which for six decades barely lifted a finger in anger at a member state, is now threatening Syria with sanctions for cracking down on protests.
What led to this is a mixture of Syria’s blindness to - or at least determination to ignore - change brought with the Arab Spring; Damascus’s choice of friends which has for years riled Arabs particularly in the Gulf; and a new chief at the League with a record of human rights work he is now bringing to bear.
Arab foreign ministers meet at the League’s headquarters in Cairo on Thursday to discuss stepping up pressure on Syria. A founding member of the pan-Arab body, Syria itself won’t attend because it was suspended this month at a gathering in Morocco.
Damascus had agreed to an Arab League plan on November 2 that would have meant drawing its troops out of cities, allowing in monitors and starting talks with the opposition. But scores have been killed since then as tanks and troops have bombarded towns.
Leading the campaign are Sunni Muslim Gulf states that have long fretted about Syria’s alliance with their non-Arab rival Shi‘ite Iran and accuse it of trying to unsettle the oil-rich monarchies. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are at the forefront of League action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Uprisings sweeping the region have broadened Arab support for action, drawing in governments newly keen for public favor. Egypt, long wary of change, voted for action against Damascus. Libya went a step further. After ousting its leader of 42 years, it recognized Syria’s opposition as the legitimate government.
“The first factor for the change is the Arab Spring and the challenge which is unprecedented. It is extremely difficult for other states not to react” to bloodshed in Syria, said Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere, an experienced Egyptian diplomat and now on a panel that will outline reforms at the League.
Change at the pan-Arab body began with Libya, when in March it suspended Tripoli and called for a no-fly zone after Muammar Gaddafi’s forces pummeled a rebellion against his rule.
But Libya was long a maverick in the 22-member organization. Gaddafi routinely sparred publicly with other Arab leaders and, in recent years, he had turned his attention to Africa.
A move against Syria targets a country at the heart of the Arab world, a frontline state with Israel and champion of Arab unity, though analysts say its policies were often divisive.
Saudi Arabia has been at loggerheads with Syria since the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Rafik al-Hariri, who made his billions in the kingdom, also held Saudi citizenship and was long seen as Riyadh’s ally during his years as prime minister of a Lebanon that was struggling to shake off Syrian domination.
At heart of the Sunni state’s worries is Iran. Saudi Arabia has long accused Tehran of trying stir up its Shi‘ite minority and more recently has, with the United States, accused Iran of planning to kill the Saudi envoy to Washington.
“Saudi’s problem is Iran. Going after Syria today ensures you remove Iran from the picture. There is an attempt to create a new Sunni bloc in the region,” said analyst Safwat Zayaat.
Sunni rulers fear the growing influence of Iran on Shi‘ite populations in an arc sweeping from the Gulf, through Iraq to Lebanon, where Shi‘ite Hezbollah wields considerable power.
Qatar’s role in leading the charge appears to have more varied motivations. The tiny state with huge gas resources has taken an increasingly prominent regional diplomatic role. It was an early backer of the rebels in Libya and has sought to provide support to Palestinians in Gaza, controlled by Islamist Hamas.
It riled Egypt’s authorities under now ousted President Hosni Mubarak when the Doha-based Al Jazeera television provided graphic coverage of the uprising against his rule.
Qatar heads a small steering committee of League states in dealing with Syria. The League has voiced increasing frustration with Damascus for not cooperating with mediation efforts.
When Syria accepted the Arab plan on November 2, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani pointedly said after the meeting: “We are happy to have reached this agreement and we will be even happier when it is implemented immediately.”
The deal was not and the League voted to suspend Damascus. The move was opposed by Lebanon, where Syria for years had a military presence, and Yemen, battling its own uprising. Iraq, whose Shi‘ite-led government is wary of offending neighboring Iran, abstained. But 18 states backed the move.
“Syria has not offered anything to move the situation forward,” said one senior Arab diplomat at the League, adding that changes in the region meant that there was a new alignment of interests in the Arab world helping the League act.
Some however were still cautious. Egypt’s ruling generals, say analysts, still have Mubarak’s reluctance for dramatic shifts but have been swayed because they don’t want to risk a public backlash for backing a repression in Syria, even as they have poured tear gas on their opponents in Cairo.
Others were also wary but have been won over. The Islamist government of Sudan, which traditionally sides with Syria’s hard line on negotiations with Israel, was swayed to back steps against Damascus by Egypt’s influential Islamists, who have ties to their oppressed Syrian counterparts, one League source said.
“Now the Arab League is flexible in taking action. We must give value to the Arab League, which Arab people think has not accomplished anything for 60 years,” said the Arab diplomat.
Founded in 1945, the only action it could agree on for years was to boycott Israeli goods. Even that unity gradually fell apart after 1979 when Egypt, the most populous Arab state, became the first to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
It has barely moved against an Arab state. No action was taken when Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, pounded the city of Hama in 1982, killing thousands to quash an Islamist uprising.
The League did authorize a peacekeeping force for war-torn Lebanon in 1976, but that force turned into Syria’s virtual occupying army. It ordered a force to Kuwait in the 1960s when Iraq threatened, but couldn’t agree to act when Iraq actually invaded in 1990, though some Arabs joined a U.S.-led coalition.
The picture could not be more different with Syria. The League is demanding Syria agree to receive a monitoring team, including military personnel, and it is considering sanctions.
“There are many ideas and suggestions for sanctions that can be imposed on the Syrian regime,” said one Arab government representative at the League, who asked not to be identified.
They include imposing a travel ban on Syrian officials, freezing bank transfers or funds in Arab states related to Assad’s government and stopping Arab projects in Syria.
“The Arab countries have trade relations with Syria but they have to take a position on Syria. These sanctions will affect this trade. The Gulf states are at the forefront of countries that have investments with Syria,” said the Arab diplomat.
Action demanded so far has not, however, been implemented by all Arab states. Egypt has said it will not remove its ambassador, saying it needs a channel for talks. But the fact that Arab states have moved toward sanctions marks a shift.
“The Arab League is changing and is creating a new norm for itself that wasn’t there. It is now intervening in domestic affairs when those affairs touch on protection of civilians,” said Choukri-Fishere.
He has a leading role on a commission headed by veteran U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, from Algeria, to review League structures, including involvement in peace and security affairs.
The commission was charged by new secretary-general Nabil Elaraby with forming a plan on responding “effectively to the Arab Spring and how to make the Arab League part of the change in the Arab world, not an obstacle to it,” said Choukri-Fishere.
The panel meets this month and reports back in February to Elaraby, a trained lawyer who represented Egypt at the United Nations and served as judge at the International Court of Justice from 2001 to 2006.
For most of its 60 years, the League has been led by former Egyptian foreign ministers. Elaraby, 76, is no exception though his tenure at the ministry lasted just two months before he was picked as the League’s secretary-general.
Yet in that short time, with Mubarak no longer in power, Elaraby left his mark on Egyptian foreign policy. He suggested tense ties with Iran should be mended and pointed to a softer approach toward Mubarak’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
“Think of the forward-leaning Egyptian foreign policy in the time he was minister,” said one Western diplomat, describing him as “very active.”
Some analysts say those policies were what prompted Cairo’s traditional-minded military rulers, startled by his desire for change, to move him from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and push him a few blocks down the Nile Corniche to the Arab League.
Choukri-Fishere said Elaraby “believes wholeheartedly in promoting the rules of international law and respect for human rights” - routinely violated in Arab states, rights groups say.
But he said Elaraby faced a stiff challenge in changing the League’s course regardless of the regional shake-up: “The Arab League is a very heavy machine,” he said. “And it functions in the middle of 22 other machines, which are also heavy.”
Additional reporting by Marwa Awad, Ayman Samir and Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Alastair Macdonald