Once a laughingstock, the Arab world’s political body is closing ranks against Bashar al-Assad.
- By Michael Stephens<p> Michael Stephens is a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute based in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter @MStephensGulf. </p>
DOHA, Qatar — The 24th Arab League Summit was nothing if not eventful. But despite a chaotic beginning, the conference in Doha had a happy ending — resulting in an important diplomatic victory for the Syrian opposition, and, naturally, for Qatar.
The media interest has all swirled around one figure, Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, the former head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, who resigned from his post just 36 hours before his supposed coronation in front of the Arab world as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people at the Arab League.
Khatib, it seems, was simply tired of the politics, the backbiting, and the interference of too many foreign hands in the Syrian national project. His patience seems to have conveniently come to an end just before the pre-summit meeting of foreign ministers was about to confirm the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Khatib clearly timed his resignation to cause maximum damage — a petulant move that demonstrated the depth of his frustrations.
Almost immediately, Arab leaders called upon Khatib to reconsider, while simultaneously giving us all the impression that everything was still fine. It clearly wasn’t. The point of this summit had already been preordained: The Syrian National Coalition, united in the face of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, was to be given its rightful seat at the highest table of Arab politics. Khatib had just thrown a wrench in the works.
After much debate and wrangling, the show did still stumble on. And despite his resignation, Khatib eventually appeared: He entered from stage left at the invitation of the Qatari emir, and to much applause sat down to take the vacant seat of the Syrian Arab Republic. In an emotional speech, as is Khatib’s style, he urged the international community to do more to help "people who are being slaughtered under the watchful eye of the world" — going as far as to encourage the United States to use Patriot missiles offensively to establish a no-fly zone over northern Syria. (It’s an understandable but slightly ridiculous request, given the legal headaches using Patriot missiles offensively would cause NATO, which promptly begged off.)
As for the Arab states, there remained some confusion over a draft declaration that seemed to remove any restrictions against league members sending weapons into Syria. The declaration "affirms every state’s right, according to its desire, to present all kinds of measures for self-defense, including military ones, to support the steadfastness of the Syrian people and the Free Army." Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani dodged the question of what this language would mean in practice during the closing press conference. But the prime minister’s tone was rambunctious, citing Libya and Syria as evidence of positive steps the Arab League has taken in recent years, labeling these more aggressive actions as "reform."
The Arab League’s recognition of Khatib and his coalition marks an important diplomatic victory for the opposition movement. The hope is that it will allow the coalition to build up legitimacy and increasingly connect its political wing outside of Syria to its military wing inside the country. "Interim" is the buzzword the coalition likes to use — small steps that will develop a true political alternative to Assad’s regime. Much, of course, still depends on Assad and his willingness to negotiate, rather than kill his way out of this crisis — and for that calculation the Arab League possesses no tools.
Since the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, the West has increasingly sought to gain legitimacy for its actions by premising military or diplomatic pressure on the support of regional states. The Arab League’s actions in Doha also check that box for Western governments — without it, they likely would not contemplate upping the ante in Syria. While the Arab League is often mocked as ineffective, this summit did open more interesting pathways for the West to explore in the coming weeks and months.
No Arab League summit can be complete without some mention of the Palestinians, and the same pledges of allegiance were made in all the speeches this time around. While no one truly expects much from the Arab League on the Palestinian question, the Arab League did establish a "Jerusalem Fund," which the draft resolution said would be used "to finance projects and programs that would maintain the Arab and Islamic character of the city." Qatar pledged $250 million for the project, and the other Arab states are supposed to kick in the money to raise the total fund to $1 billion. But what this will change in practice remains unknown, and will depend more upon Israel and the United States than it will the Arabs. But it does show that for once the Arabs are doing something rather than endlessly talking.
All in all then, it was a successful summit. Qatar’s emir can breathe a sigh of relief that his moment in the spotlight was not ruined by the actions of a moody Syrian cleric. Qatar’s position on Syria has needed a little bolstering of late, and to have sidestepped the potential embarrassment of the Syrian opposition coalition descending into public infighting and dissolution means the Qataris can rest easy that they have delivered what they promised.
What happens next is out of Qatar’s and the Arab League’s hands. All eyes will now turn toward the United Nations, where the Europeans and the Americans have a chance to build on the diplomatic progress at the Arab League.