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What is the Purpose of the Arab League?

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On February 23, Arab League chief Nabil ElAraby urged the United Nations Security Council to issue a ceasefire in Syria. This appeal comes 11 months after Bashar Assad began his brutal crackdown, which has taken the lives of more than 7,500 civilians.

What then, precisely is the purpose of the Arab League? Formed in 1945, Article II of the Arab League Charter states that its mission is to strengthen ties between member states and "safeguard their independence and sovereignty; and a general concern with the affairs and interests of the Arab countries." While Articles V and VI stipulate that resorting to force between two or more member-states is prohibited and may lead to suspension from the League, there is no clause specifying appropriate action if a member-state oppresses its citizens.

This omission is no accident. Shlomo Avineri's recent article "It's the sovereignty, stupid," illustrated why Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution which would have insisted that the Syrian Government and anti-regime protesters cease all violence and reprisals. Apart from their traditional support and sympathy with Syria, both Russia and China have at times brutally suppressed secessionist movements in Chechnya and Tibet, respectively. Moscow and Beijing fear that if the Syrian opposition succeeds, Chechens and Tibetans may revolt, and therefore they no doubt will quell these rebellions, knowing full-well that neither the UN, NATO, nor anyone in the West will intervene. Protest, yes; intervene, no.

The Arab League, like Russia and China, adheres to this same policy of self-interest and supreme internal sovereignty. It is clear that the Arab League is not a military pact like NATO, but it does purport to promote Arab solidarity, peace and unity. Moreover, Arab League members devote a disproportionate amount of their expenditures on military defense.

In a global ranking of military defense expenditures, in which the United States ranks number one, Egypt and Saudi Arabia rank 16 and 26, respectively. In 2011, Egypt's defense budget was $7 billion, and had more than 4,200 tanks and helicopters. Saudi Arabia's defense budget was $39 billion, and had more than 9,700 land and air weapons. Who it must finally be asked, are their enemies? Do they think Israel will attack them? Iran, possibly, but that threat is a new phenomenon and does not explain the 30 years of military buildup in the Middle East.

Why then, does the Arab League demand that the UN (i.e the West) intervene when it is perfectly capable of deploying soldiers and personnel who could provide humanitarian and military assistance to those in need? Why did the Arab League allow NATO to lead the anti-Gaddafi coalition when on the one hand, many League members rejected outside intervention and while Morocco, Jordan and Gulf states could have done it themselves? That is, if they wanted to do so. The real issue is that, for most Arab League nations, a strong military has primarily guaranteed that the ruling strongman will maintain power.

It can be expected that the Arab League will continue calling for a UN intervention in Syria, which is what they have historically been programmed to do. In the end, their rhetoric will remain empty. The death toll will surely rise and they will do nothing, relying only on the West to intervene on their behalf. This bitter truth underscores the true nature of the Arab League. After all, it is all about the sovereignty and internal control over their people.