CAIRO (Reuters) - The Arab League’s observer mission to Syria is struggling to salvage any credibility as its members start to walk out, the opposition calls it a toothless failure and killings of anti-government protesters continue unabated.
Diplomats and officials at the Cairo-based League say they are frustrated because the monitors had no time to prepare for their task and their mandate was limited to observing events.
The monitors, now numbering 165, began work on December 26, trying to verify if Syria was complying with an agreement to halt a 10-month-old crackdown on protesters in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed.
The Syrian authorities were supposed to stop attacking peaceful protests, withdraw troops and tanks from the streets, free detainees and open political dialogue.
Instead the violence has continued, exposing the Arab League mission to charges that it is simply allowing Assad more time to put down the insurgency.
In addition, the monitors have been demoralised by an attack on one team that wounded 11, undermined by the controversial choice of a Sudanese general as mission leader and wracked by a tug-of-war between rival Arab states.
Asked whether the mission was beginning to fall apart, one observer told Reuters by telephone on Wednesday from Syria:
“Those who want to leave are leaving on a personal level, not due to the will of the state. There are some people who are concerned about their safety ... Some, from a professional perspective, feel they are not achieving anything.”
The monitor, who asked that his name be withheld, said he too wanted to leave: “... The delegation needs expertise... It needs will and good intentions from the authorities.”
Disillusioned monitors have said the Syrian military has not withdrawn from civilian areas as promised and the bloodshed has not abated as a result of their presence.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in turn has mocked the League as ineffective and made clear he has no intention of ending his crackdown whether the monitors were there or not.
While the Arab League says the level of violence has dropped since the monitors’ arrival, an Arab official close to the monitoring operation said there was little Arab states could do, short of military action, to end the crackdown.
“This is not a problem with the Arab League. This is a problem with the international system. Who is willing to send in troops? Who is willing to send in a fighting force?” the Cairo-based official told Reuters on Thursday.
There is little appetite among Arabs or in the U.N. Security Council for an escalation against Syria, whose location means any major upheaval could further destabilise a troubled region.
Qatar, whose Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani chairs the Arab League committee on Syria, has suggested strengthening the mission with better training and equipment.
Anwar al-Bunni, a veteran activist and member of Syria’s opposition Transitional National Council, said it was time to either expand the mission or send the monitors home.
“What training? What equipment? If we give them cars, if we give them helicopters, what does it mean as long as the regime says it will not implement the Arab protocols,” he said.
A representative of one Arab state at the League called for a rapid reaction force to back up monitors, saying it should also include non-Arab Muslim countries to add weight.
“The Arab monitors’ mission is toothless and the monitors have not exceeded 200 people ... in a big country like Syria and with no previous experience,” he said, declining to be named.
“I demand the rapid formation of an intervention force from Arab and Muslim states that could include countries like Pakistan... and have a strong military component.”
The League backed an international campaign against a friendless Muammar Gaddafi last year. The situation in Syria is more complex because Syria lies at the heart of the Arab world, unlike Libya which was long a maverick state.
There are divisions within the League, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia leading those wanting to increase the pressure on Syria, opposed by Syria’s neighbours Lebanon and Iraq.
Leaders of countries like Algeria are reluctant to pile pressure on a fellow autocrat lest they be next. Non-Arab Iran is a close ally of Damascus, complicating the Arab League’s efforts to end the bloodshed.
“What is this team going to do? This team is not there to stop the violence. It is not there to pull back the military. It is not there to free prisoners. It is to verify. It is not a peacekeeping team,” the Arab official said.
“Any similar operation needs six to eight weeks to prepare before deploying,” he said, noting that the mission had begun only days after receiving ministerial approval. “Can you imagine if we had waited six weeks? We would have been massacred by the press and the opposition.”
The mission will present its findings to the League’s foreign ministers on January 19-20. It is not clear what more the League can do if, as expected, the report finds that Syria has not complied or not fully complied with its promises.
Additional reporting by Ayman Samir and Yasmine Saleh, editing by Tim Pearce