Arab League observer in Daraa, Syria (photo: dpa)
The Arab League's Observer Mission in Syria

Staring into the Abyss

An effective way of exerting pressure, or nothing but a farce? Still in the early stages, or has it already failed? Many different questions are being raised overseas about the Arab League's observer mission to Syria, and the answers given by Syrians on the ground are equally varied. Hubertus Ecker has been finding out more in Damascus

Even before he arrived in Syria, Mohammed Ahmad Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the Arab League's observer mission to the country, was far from welcome. When Syrians heard that from 1999 onwards the general was the personal representative in Darfur of the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, currently the focus of an international arrest warrant for war crimes in the region, the majority were under no illusion: al-Dabi was hardly the person to deal seriously with their human rights situation.

Scarcely had the general from northern Sudan arrived on Syrian soil than these fears were confirmed. During his visit to Homs, one of the flashpoints of the uprising, he reported that… there was nothing to report. He had seen "nothing frightening". This statement was met with a storm of outrage, prompting him to express himself more carefully: he needed more time to investigate the situation.

photo: dpa
General Mohammed al-Dabi is a controversial political figure. In a recent statement he declared that there "wasn't anything frightening" going on in the troubled city of Homs

​​"How strange that this insight didn't just come to him straight away, after taking a brief stroll through Homs," scoffs Nabil. The tense 24-year-old clicks through the archive on his computer.

Almost all the videos in existence of the observer mission to date are in there. They have been sent to him by activists, or by members of the various local coordination committees scattered across the whole of Syria which are organizing the demonstrations in their respective regions.

Protest movement in the ascendant

Nabil himself is on the Damascus coordination committee. "This one caused another scandal," he says, opening the video in which an inspector from the Arab League, clad in an orange waistcoat, confirmed to activists in Daraa that he had seen snipers.

However, al-Dabi corrected this assertion in an interview with the BBC, saying that the observer had meant it hypothetically, and had used the conjunctive form when making his statement. "Yet anyone who understands Arabic can hear what he really said," says Nabil, clicking away all the windows on his computer screen. "It's a travesty, an utter travesty," he hisses.

Next to Nabil sits his childhood friend Ziad. Ziad clears his throat. Of course, he says, this al-Dabi is just a useless pawn. Ziad simply doesn't know how the regime managed to get the Arab League to select al-Dabi to head the mission – but then, who does know how these dirty political games are played?

At any rate, he says, this much is clear: the Syrian demonstrators have definitely drawn fresh courage from the arrival of the observer mission. Ziad points out that more than one million people protested on December 30th alone; two days before that, even the cautious city of Aleppo saw the biggest demonstration yet, attended by thousands of people.

Also, he says, not all the observers are like al-Dabi. "One of them, who had visited Al Moadamyeh, a suburb of Damascus, testified that he had not seen any armed demonstrators. And the Saudi observer Khaled al-Rabi'an got to Douma and Harasta on his own initiative and visited the hospitals there. The local people cheered him and carried him on their shoulders."

Danger of a 'Libyan scenario'?

"And how many people die as soon as the inspectors leave the scene?" retorts Nabil. The coordination committee, he says, counted 315 deaths between December 23rd, the day the observer delegation arrived in Syria, and January 1st.

Arab League Secretary General, Nabil al-Arabi, left, Qatari Prime Minister and head of state Hamad ben Jassem, center, and Ahmed bin Heli, the Arab League's assistant secretary-general for political affairs during the Meeting of the Committee of Ministers of the Arab League to discuss the situation in Syria held in Doha, Saturday, 17 December 2011 (photo: AP/Osama Faisal)
This Saturday (7 January 2012) the committee of the Arab League, chaired by Qatar, will discuss the results of the inspections in Damascus, as well as in the main flashpoints of the uprising: Homs, Daraa, Hama and Idlib. More and more people are calling for the observers to be withdrawn from the country because of the continuing violence

​​Are we in danger of seeing a 'Libyan scenario' happen in Syria – one that it could be even worse? Ziad flares up. He says that whereas Libya has six million inhabitants, Syria has 23 million. In Libya there was a clear division between rebel localities and those loyal to the regime, whereas in Syria those for and against the regime live side by side in densely populated areas.

"If aerial bombardments don't kill us all en masse, we'll probably do it ourselves – in a civil war. That would be madness," groans Ziad.

Supporters and conspiracy theories

Both men fall silent. It's true that sections of Syrian society remain loyal to the regime – even in Homs. Nabil's archive provides evidence of this as well. There is the video from December 28th, for example, in which a mother describes to two members of the observer delegation how her son was killed by "terrorists".

A relative also impresses on the inspectors that they should under no circumstances believe the reports on Al-Jazeera. Everything on there is faked, he says, the work of conspiracy theorists – of al-Qaida and the US…

"… and Saudi Arabia," adds Abu George. The fruit seller from the Al-Qassa quarter of Damascus makes no bones about his position. His kiosk positively sags beneath the weight of all the portraits of the Syrian president.

Saudi Arabia, he says, has been trying for years to isolate Iran in the region, and now the Islamic Republic thinks it sees an opportunity to do so – by weakening Syria.

photo: AP
Demands for justice, freedom, and the end of the Baath dictatorship: a demonstration by opponents of the regime in Homs

​​"That was why that Saudi inspector snuck his way into Douma: he wanted to incite an armed uprising there!" explains Abu George firmly. But then he lowers his voice:

"Do you know how radically conservative the people of Douma and Harasta are? They say that the Saudi prayed with them in the mosque. What, he comes to Syria to pray here?" Abu George accompanies this question with a meaningful look.

Alone against the tyrant

If it were down to Abu George, the observer delegation would be made to leave the country post-haste – with the exception of Mohammed Ahmad Mustafa al-Dabi. Nabil also wants them to leave – and Mohammed Ahmad Mustafa al-Dabi with them. At any rate, he warmly welcomes the initiative put forward by Salem al-Diqbassi.

The speaker of the Arab Parliament, which is an advisory committee of the Arab League, has called for the withdrawal of the inspectors. He reasons that their presence effectively acts as a smokescreen for the regime while it continues to kill. However, Ziad is dismissive of this: "As if he actually cares about human rights. He just wants to save face for the League."

In his opinion, the better solution would be to send more inspectors, according to plan. "22 are supposed to be coming from Iraq, whose government is collaborating with the regime, and 25 from the GCC countries, whose governments oppose the regime."

Ziad points out that it is hardly in the League's interest if inspectors from the two blocs contradict each other before the eyes of the world. Equally, it cannot afford to continue to convey the impression that Damascus has it on a leash, or even at its command.

So can we, after all, expect the mission to have a greater impact than it has done to date? Ziad sees this as a major opportunity. He is quite convinced that the Syrians can get rid of their tyrant by themselves. All they need is a little encouragement, and the landslide will gather momentum. And Ziad believes that this has already happened – with the arrival of the inspectors in the country.

Hubertus Ecker

© 2012

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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