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Monitors in the limelight
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 01 - 2011

Syria's opposition doubts the effectiveness of the Arab League monitors in the country, fearing that the failure of their mission will result in international intervention, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
Two weeks into the month-long mission of the Arab monitors sent to Syria to check whether the Syrian authorities are applying the Arab initiative that aims to end the crackdown by the regime against protesters that began nearly ten months ago and set the crisis on track to a resolution, the country's opposition has stepped up criticisms of the mission, describing it as doomed to failure and setting the scene for possible international intervention.
Since the monitors arrived, opposition spokesmen have said that the Syrian authorities would not allow the mission to move freely or meet independent eyewitnesses to the ongoing crackdown. However, they have also welcomed the monitors' mission, seeing it as the first opportunity for the outside world to see the truth of what is taking place in Syria.
The Free Syria Army (FSA), composed of soldiers defecting from the regular Syrian armed forces, announced a ceasefire of its offensive operations against the Syrian security forces as soon as the mission began its work. The FSA also said it wanted to meet the Arab monitors urgently, according to Riyad Al-Assaad, the FSA leader.
On the second day of their mission, the Arab monitors visited the central Syrian city of Homs, where the largest number of civilian fatalities has occurred since the onset of the uprising in the country. During the visit, the Syrian media quoted the chief of the mission, Mohamed Mustafa Al-Dabi as saying that he "had not seen anything disturbing" and that conditions in the city were "reassuring".
Al-Dabi's statement triggered a wave of protests among the Syrian opposition, with local people noting that the monitors had been accompanied by Syrian army officers. The Syrian military had previously shelled the city using heavy artillery, they said, killing nearly 2,000 civilians, and they expressed their disappointment at the statements made by the monitors.
The Arab League itself, which sent the Arab monitoring mission to Syria, was quick to deny the statements credited to al-Dabi, saying that they had been "fabricated." A spokesman for the League said that Al-Dabi had meant to say that the work of the monitors was reassuring, not what was taking place on the ground in Syria.
Activists in Syria said that the Syrian army had withdrawn its tanks hours before the monitors arrived, while the US NGO Human Rights Watch accused the Syrian authorities of transferring hundreds of detainees from temporary detention centres and prisons to military locations in order to conceal them from Arab League monitors.
Al-Dabi's statements were not the only cause of controversy. On the fourth day of the monitors' visit, Arab satellite television channels broadcast footage they said had been taken by residents of the southern Syrian city of Deraa, where the uprising against the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad started ten months ago, documenting the deaths of more than 750 civilians.
The footage appeared to show one of the Arab monitors stating that he had seen snipers on top of buildings in the city, and he threatened to report this to the Arab League. The footage was subsequently disavowed by the head of the monitoring mission, who said that no such claims had been made.
Meanwhile, another monitor, apparently recorded in a mosque in Duma near the Syrian capital Damascus, was seen telling demonstrators that "our goal is to report the suffering and problems in order to resolve them. Our goal is not to remove the president. It is to restore peace and safety to Syria."
As the monitoring mission continued, Syrian demonstrators undertook some of the largest and most extensive protests since the beginning of the uprising, despite the security clampdown by the regime.
More than 450 protests have taken place across the country since the monitors arrived two weeks ago, with some observers estimating the number of demonstrators as reaching three million, proving that the protests are in no danger of subsiding despite the violence used by the security and military forces against the protesters.
For its part, the international community is closely watching the Arab League mission to Syria, reiterating demands that the monitors should be given the freedom to do their work. Western states have repeatedly called on the Syrian authorities to cooperate with the monitors and allow them to travel around the country without restriction.
There have been further criticisms of the monitors within Syria. "We gave the monitoring group the names of 85 human rights activists in Syria, but they have not contacted most of them," said Khalil Maatouq, director of the Syrian Centre for the Defence of Prisoners of Conscience and Opinion in Syria, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
"They should coordinate with us, so that we can help them to accomplish their assignment as best they can."
A spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry said that the government was "not in any way interfering with the work of the commission, but is only coordinating with it." He said the Syrian government was responsible for the safety of committee members, "except in areas where there are outlaw armed elements".
The Arab League resolution that provided the original mandate for the monitors gives them the responsibility to monitor, but not necessarily to investigate, what is going on on the ground in Syria.
"The Arab League envoys came to Syria to observe, not to investigate," Anwar Al-Bonni, director of the Syrian Centre for Legal Research and Studies, told the Weekly. "Hence, the purpose of this commission is unclear, because it is not investigating allegations of crimes against civilians."
"Whatever the commission decides to write at the end of its mission, it is likely to be a monitoring report alone. Reports of violations that have taken place in Syria by the security forces are already available from international groups, and these are more important than anything the Arab monitors are likely to submit."
For its part, Syria's official media has all but ignored the monitors' visit, except to express its confidence that the monitors will be supportive of the Syrian regime. Some parts of the country's media have also led a campaign against the Arab monitors, claiming that one of the members of the commission urged demonstrators in the town of Hersta near Damascus to arm themselves in order to confront the regime.
The claim was refuted by locals and activists and mocked by the Syrian opposition.
Whatever their mandate, the presence of the Arab League officials in the country has not stopped the security clampdown or the killings of demonstrators. Syrian activists say that 250 civilians were killed within a week of the mission's arrival, leading to calls for the monitors to be withdrawn in protest at what were described as violations of the agreement between the Syrian government and the Arab League.
The ministerial council of the League has called for a meeting to decide on what steps if any should be taken against the Syrian regime, in the light of the continuing killing of civilians in the country. Since the beginning of the uprising, some 6,000 people have been killed by the Syrian security forces, according to human rights monitors.
Some figures in the country's opposition have claimed that the monitoring group has been following the directives of the Syrian regime, which has been chaperoning it around the country.
They have accused the monitors of not listening to the opposition and not responding to reports of violations. The monitors typically start their work by visiting the governor of the region they intend to visit, who then decides which areas they should see, opposition figures say.
The head of the group is a former head of Sudanese intelligence wanted by the International Court of Justice, the opposition says, claiming that the Syrian authorities have been preventing the monitors from visiting sensitive areas by warning them of the presence of alleged terrorists.
"If the goal of the Arab monitors is to persuade the Syrian authorities to stop the killings and violence at least temporarily, this is a positive step," Al-Bonni said. "But it seems that the monitors are nothing more than extras on the scene and that they will do nothing to bring about a change in the regime's policies of violence and killing."
The Arab monitors are supposed to be ensuring that the Syrian regime is doing everything it can to end the violence in the country and to verify that it is complying with Arab League resolutions calling for the release of tens of thousands of detainees, the withdrawal of the army from the country's towns and cities, and the entry of the foreign and Arab media to the country.
However, none of these things has so far been achieved, and some opposition figures in Syria now fear that the failure of the Arab League mission will only open the way to possible international military intervention.


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