Syria: Opportunities and Limits of International Observation Efforts

The League of Arab States Observer Mission to Syria is in an administratively critical time with the Observer Mission members from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council States of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates leaving the Mission on Tuesday, January 24. This represents 52 persons of an estimated 160, already badly understaffed.

After a good deal of behind-the scenes-negotiations and due in part to the more dynamic leadership of the new Secretary-General of the Arab League, Nabil el-Arabi, a former Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations, an observer mission from the Arab League was sent to Syria on December 26, 2011 with the agreement of the Syrian Government led by President Bashar al-Assad.  This was the first observer mission undertaken by the Arab League.  Such observer missions have been undertaken elsewhere both by the UN and by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). There is a good study of the experiences and aims of NGO observer missions which can serve as guideline for observation work. (1)

The Arab League Observer Mission had two tasks, basically to evaluate the situation in the light of a rather general agreement signed between the Syrian Government and the Arab League to withdraw heavy military weapons from the cities and to start a dialogue with the opposition movements.  The second aim was to reduce the killing by the moral presence of the observers.  The UN has estimated that some 5,400 people have been killed since the March 2011 start of public demonstrations of opposition.

In practice, it is not heavy military weapons which have done most of the killing but rather a wide use of snipers shooting at demonstrations as well as soldiers and security police shooting at crowds.  There have also been Government troops killed, again mostly by snipers. Armed attacks on Government forces may grow as there are now defectors from the Syrian Army who take their weapons with them.

The Government has called for negotiations, as President al-Assad did on June 20, but none have taken place.  Some opposition figures have stated that negotiations can only take place after al-Assd steps down.

Obviously, there needs to be a national dialog within Syria.  Civil society participation — religious, education, labor, women, cultural and media — is crucial to build public support for a real national dialog and to broaden constituencies for peace.  A national dialog is merely the beginning of a deep reordering of the political and economic structures and relationships among elements of the society.  There is a need for continual adjustments to adapt to new developments. There also needs to be quick post-agreement benefits to give people a stake in the readjustment process and to reduce the capacity of spoilers. A real national dialog could set out a framework for reforms which have been promised in the past but which never came to birth.  As a result, sentiments have hardened, and trust has been lost.

Currently, the situation seems to have reached a stalemate when neither the government nor the protesters can resolve the crisis on their own terms. As Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group wrote “Everybody is waiting for Godot.  Whether it’s a military coup, the president finally becoming the leader they hoped him to be at the outset, the international community doing something, economic collapse — everybody is desperate for something.” (2)

On April 29, the UN Human Rights Council voted in a Special Session to send a human rights observer-fact-finding mission to Syria. However, the human rights mission has not been allowed to enter Syria. Thus there was a feeling within the diplomatic community that there should be an “all-Arab” solution, and the Arab League responded.

The Arab League Observer Mission of some 160 people is led by General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, the former head of military intelligence of Sudan and a power in the military-security force group which runs North Sudan. He is well known for his activities against the opposition in Darfur.(3) Most of the Observer Mission personnel are military officers and League of Arab States Secretariat who had been at its headquarters in Cairo. There were a small number of members drawn from Arab NGOs. (The professions of all the members have not been listed.) At least 11 of the observers have been injured in fighting although neither Government nor opposition take blame for attacking the observers.

On Sunday, January 22, the Observer Mission took the initiative to propose to the officials of the Arab League a plan for a solution to the Syrian conflict — a proposal made public by the rotating President of the Arab League, Cheikh Hamad Ben Jassem al-Thani, Prime Minister of Qatar who also serves as its Foreign Minister. The proposal, largely modelled on the agreement signed in November by President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen was that President al-Assad resign, giving his authority to his vice-president who would create a unity government of transition to be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections.

The Syrian Government, through its Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, immediately rejected the proposal saying that it was outside the mandate of the Observer Mission and it was “an attack on its national sovereignty and a flagrant interference in internal affairs.”

The Arab League has now proposed that the Syrian situation be re-presented to the UN Security Council where it has been discussed before.  Both China and Russia wish to avoid a repeat of the Libya experience where they voted for limited UN action to protect the population only to find that the limited action turned into a NATO-led attack to change the government. Therefore China and Russia will block anything that might justify a military intervention into Syria.

Thus, in a January 25, 2012 message to the Arab League Secretary-General, the Association of World Citizens proposed the replacement of the Saudi and Gulf State Observers by Arab-speaking NGO representatives who would have a double mission of observation and local conflict resolution and reconciliation tasks.  The World Citizen message noted that “we do not underestimate the difficulties of the situation or the difficulties of building such a core of over 50 NGO observers in a short time. Nevertheless, we believe that the League of Arab States Observer Mission is the only intergovernmental instrument in place and that its effectiveness will be increased by the energy and devotion of civil society members.”

Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens and editor of the on-line journal of world politics and culture:


(1)   Hans Thoolen and Berth Verstappen. Human Rights Missions: A Study of the Fact-finding Practice of Non-governmental Organizations (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1986)

(2)   See his analysis of the situation in Syria in

(3)   See Julie Flint and Alex de Wall Darfur: A Short History of a Long War (London: Zed Books, 2005)