The decisiveness of the recent Arab League resolutions 7438 and 7439 regarding Syria—to suspend its membership and to send an observer mission, which passed on November 12th and 16th respectively—surprised many observers who previously viewed the regional organization as a symbolic institution not capable of effective action. In fact, when viewed in conjunction with the decision at the beginning of the year to support the intervention of the UN Security Council in Libya, the resolutions indicate that the Arab League has grown in boldness and strength. The uprisings against authoritarian regimes have shaken the Arab world and upset the status quo, and a new balance of power is emerging in which the pan-Arab organization has a revived role. This is one of the most notable outcomes so far of the impact of the Arab revolts on the Arab League.
These decisions by the Arab League indicate two novel trends in the functioning of the organization: a new resoluteness to engage with problems among its members and, more recently, a determination to find a solution strictly within the Arab context. Loosening the voting strictures that, in the past, crippled its maneuverability has been instrumental to this transformation.
Though the charter of the Arab League states that unanimity is required when dealing with aggressions against a state member and the exclusion of a state from the organization, these two Arab League resolutions set the precedent that unanimity is no longer necessary in such cases.
The putative Arab solution to the crisis includes economic and political sanctions against the Syrian government; a recommendation for Arab states to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus; and the involvement of the Syrian opposition in various stages of resolution 7438. Resolution 7439 has taken the action plan one step further, qualitatively, by proposing an observer mission.
There are still crucial limitations to the Arab League; most importantly, it lacks an enforcement mechanism, and so in the end it may need to refer the Syria case to the Security Council, just as it did with Libya.
The recent decisiveness of the Arab League may pave the way for changes to its modus operandi, which, in the end, will make it more relevant.
The Libyan resolution of March 12th (resolution 7360) was significant in that it called on the Security Council to intervene in a fellow member state. However, the importance of the November 12th decision (resolution 7438) is that it takes a radical step: the suspension of a state with great geopolitical and historical weight. It also does not defer responsibility to the UN Security Council, but stipulates measures to reach an Arab solution.
Whereas the first sentence of the text on Libya “calls on the Security Council to assume responsibility,” resolution 7438 mentions the UN in passing in its second paragraph in which the Arab League commits itself “to provide protection to Syrian civilians by contacting the pertinent Arab authorities, and in case the violence does not stop, the Secretary-General will contact the pertinent international human rights organizations, including the UN.”
The putative Arab solution to the crisis includes economic and political sanctions against the Syrian government—a measure gaining support among Arab League members—and a recommendation for Arab states to withdraw their ambassadors from Damascus. But more emphatically, it calls on the involvement of the Syrian opposition in various stages of the resolution, including an invitation to all factions to meet “to agree on a plan for the coming transition phase in Syria.” The Arab League would then decide whether it considers the formal recognition of the Syrian opposition fitting.
The November 12th resolution gave Syria three days to respond to the League’s plan to end the violence, and as soon as this period expired on November 16th, the League convened in Rabat without Syria and proposed sending monitors to the country. This most recent development further underlines that the League not only means business, but is intent on working on a solution within the regional context.
Since then, Syria, which is still barred from Arab League meetings, has been trying to negotiate the mandate of the observer mission. For example, it has objected to Turkish participation in the mission, and demands that the monitors be followed by minders. The Arab League disagrees, and plans to meet on November 24th at its headquarters in Cairo to reach a final decision regarding the suspension of Syria.
There is another crucial development reflected in both the Libyan resolution of March 12th and the Syrian resolution of November 12th: neither was unanimously adopted. The charter of the Arab League states that unanimity is required when dealing with aggressions against a state member and the exclusion of a state from the organization; thus these two Arab League resolutions set the precedent that unanimity is no longer necessary in such cases. This new precedent has been the focus of criticism by Syria and constitutes a crucial development in the modus operandi of the organization. In the past, unanimity has paralyzed the organization; the change makes the Arab League much more flexible, allowing it to deal with internal Arab issues.
There are still crucial limitations to the Arab League; most importantly, it lacks an enforcement mechanism, and so it may refer the Syria case to the Security Council, just as it did with Libya. However, the Arab Spring has affected the Arab League in such a way that it now dares to make bolder decisions—including ones that propose solutions which attempt to avoid external interference—and set precedents that may pave the way for changes to its modus operandi, which, in the end, will make it more relevant.