Over the past months, the Arab League has incrementally stepped up pressure on Syria's Bashar al-Assad, culminating in the imposition of diplomatic and economic sanctions. Since then, the League has been showered with admiration from Western governments, media outlets, and political analysts for stepping up to protect Syrian civilians and their democratic aspirations. However, it may be more accurate to comment the League for its shrewd political calculations of how the crisis could best serve its interests.
The Arab League's activism comes amid widespread exasperation with Damascus. The West, once warily optimistic about the younger Assad's prospects as a reformer, has intensified pressure with ever stiffening sanctions from the United States, Canada, and the European Union, Syria's largest trading partner. France has even hinted at using militaries to establish "humanitarian corridors" for civilians inside Syria, a sentiment echoed by Turkey. Assad's numerous broken promises to his erstwhile friend Prime Minister Recep Erdogan soured the gradually improving relationship between historical enemies. Now, Turkey hosts thousands of refugees, as well as defected military officers who claim to be leading the armed opposition.
The trend is not limited to traditional enemies or regional rivals. China and Russia have held the UN Security Council at bay, but continue to call for engagement with the opposition and faster implementation of reforms to stave off civil war. Even Iran, which provides Syria's government with arms and aid, has begun vacillating in its support for Assad. Iranian government officials have met with the National Coordinating Body for Democratic Change, a more Iran-friendly opposition group than the larger Syrian National Council. Because of Syria's role as a transit point for Iranian material and financial support to Hezbollah and Hamas, Tehran is more concerned with its long-term interests than its relationship with one regime.
It is against this backdrop, where both antagonists and allies of Assad have pushed the regime to ease the oppression, that the Arab League was forced to act. Once the dominant members of the League calculated that, sooner or later, Assad would fall, they opted to act on the side of the opposition. But that does not mean that they did so out of concern for the Syrian people. Rather, the League acted out of concern for its image and its influence.
The Arab League has long been described as a "club of dictators," but seems to be tiring of the running joke. With that in mind, some governments have decided that promoting democratic values in other countries is a decent enough foil for criticism that they repress such ambitions at home. Qatar, for example, does not allow political parties or a national legislature but trained and armed the Libyan rebels, and is now leading the push for Syrian sanctions. Support for political inclusion is no longer an ideal, but rather a weapon to wield against one's rivals and a shield against scrutiny.
Many of the Arab League countries are also worried about a prospective civil war spilling over Syria's borders. Syria's diverse and fragile neighbors, Lebanon and Iraq, voted against the latest sanctions resolution in part to avoid Syrian retaliation that could stoke their own sectarian troubles. The Gulf members, hundreds of kilometers away, calculated that leaving Syria to its own devices would only draw out and intensify the inevitable violence. So, the Arabs decided to punish Syria in the hopes that it will contain the conflict and protect their own borders.
Perhaps the greatest factor in motivating the Arab League to act was the fear of being outmaneuvered by the rising regional powers, Turkey and Iran. Syria's importance -- as a transit corridor, a trading partner, a military power, a bulwark against Israel, and a key to stability in Lebanon, Israel and Iraq -- is difficult to overstate. The two non-Arab powers are staking their own positions in the conflict, with Turkey strongly pushing Assad to either reform or leave, and Iran hedging its bets by maintaining ties to the opposition and the regime. The Arab powers are particularly keen to hurt Iran by ensuring a Sunni government comes to power in Sunni-majority but currently Shiite-dominated Syria. Were the Arab League to simply sit on the sidelines, it would give either Iran or Turkey a dominant position in a post-Assad region.
All of this does not amount to a condemnation of the sanctions' substance, but rather of the motives behind them. I believe, unequivocally, that Assad must go, and the League's actions are a step in the right direction. However, it is worthwhile to pause the praise and note that the same Arab leaders have acted similarly towards their own people or stood idly by while their neighbors have done so. Sanctioning Assad was not a humanitarian decision, but one motivated by calculated self-interest on the part of the Arab governments.
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