Didier Billion: “The lack of unity is damaging the effectiveness of the Arab League’s threats”
The Arab League has asked Bashar al-Assad to step down. Is the Arab League capable of exerting pressure on the inflexible Syrian president? What are its weaknesses? Didier Billion is a specialist on the Middle East at IRIS, the Institute for International and Strategic Relations. He believes that despite its efforts, the Arab League remains divided and powerless to resolve the Syrian conflict. Interview with ARTE Journal.
Fanny Lépine for ARTE Journal: The Arab League has offered Bashar al-Assad a “safe exit” if he leaves power. Will this influence the Syrian leader?
Didier Billion: “No, I don’t think so because for several months now, a year almost, the Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has threatened, pressured and made promises to Bashar al-Assad if he either introduces democratic reforms, or – in this new turn of events – leaves the country. The Syrian government has systematically refused and disregarded the proposals put forward by the Arab League. So I don’t think that now the Arab League is in a position to exert any influence over the Syrian government. If any external power can exert real, effective and positive influence it is probably only Russia, or to a certain extent, Kofi Annan. But I don’t believe the Arab League is in a position to influence Bashar al-Assad’s departure.”
What is the intrinsic weakness of the Arab League?
Didier Billion: “If you look at it from a global point of view, it is quite paradoxical, shocking even – if we can be allowed humour in such a situation – that countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are giving lessons in democracy to Syria, which deserves true democracy, but it’s paradoxical because we know very well that neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia are paragons of democratic virtue. So it is quite comical to see these countries lecturing others. That’s the first thing. Secondly, and we must not underestimate this, the Arab League is always presented as a homogenous entity, which isn’t the case. On the matter of Syria, since this is the subject of the interview, there are divergences. We know that countries such as Iraq, Algeria, Yemen, are not at the forefront of criticism against Syria and that even if, as we mentioned previously, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are exerting huge pressure on the Syrian government, it isn’t the case for the other countries. From this point of view, the lack of unity is damaging the effectiveness of the Arab League’s threats. That’s a fact. We are not in a position to lecture. The European Union is not excelling either in its management of the Syrian crisis, but in any case, the Arab League is not in a position to really influence the course of events in Syria.”
The Syrian government has on several occasions accused the Arab League of being in the pay of the West. Is that true?
Didier Billion: “It’s just rhetoric. You can’t say that the League, as such, is in the pay of the West, since the Arab League is very divided. Certain countries, I won’t say they are in the pay, but they are very close to the Western powers. I come back to the examples of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, we know they are close allies of the United States in particular. To be specific, they are hand in glove with the United States and some other Western powers over Syria. On the other hand, within the Arab League you have countries that are not only not in the pay of the Western powers but who are opposed to them or in disagreement. Again you can use the example of Iraq, Algeria and others. So the expression ‘in the pay of’ isn’t appropriate.”
Before the start of the Syrian crisis, what relationship did the Assads have with the Arab League?
Didier Billion: “Relations have always been quite tense because the Syrian government, without going too far back in history, has always considered that the Arab League was not active enough regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Obviously this is an extremely sensitive subject for the Syrian government: it always has been. Not because the government is more pro-Palestinian than other Arab countries, but because part of Syria is occupied, annexed by Israel. There has always been this dispute. The Syrian government has always suspected – accused even – members of the Arab League of being too conciliatory with Israel, and the United States: this is very important. So relations have never been good and lately, you can imagine that the Syrian government is not in a position to have normal relations with the Arab League since the pressures are such that they have become the enemy.”
So from the start, the Arab League was in a weak negotiating position?
Didier Billion: “Until now the Arab League’s role has been to rubber stamp decisions. It has not influenced, at any level, any issues in the region. A region that has been troubled for decades. We must not mythicize the Arab League – or its effectiveness, more precisely. But with the Syrian crisis we can see an evolution. For once, the Arab League – or at least the majority of its members – wanted to influence the course of things: it made a number of resolutions, declarations, sanctions regarding Syria and it’s the first time in the history of the Arab League that they have tackled an issue, with the divisions and restrictions I mentioned previously. You can’t say it started from a position of weakness. Traditionally, it’s an organisation, on this issue as on several others, which has survived the major issues in the middle East over the last few decades: the Arab League is about rubber stamping as I said, a body that produces words but little action. There has been a change but not one that will suit the Syrian government, to say the least!”
Fanny Lépine/ARTE Journal
Read also the article of the Guardian Assad regime cannot last long, says Arab League leader
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