Arab League refuses to back military strike on Syria

Arab leaders face deep public hostility to any intervention and tangle of shifting rivalries

Arab League and United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi  after a TV interview at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva yesterday. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Arab League and United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi after a TV interview at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva yesterday. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters


The leaders of the Arab world have blamed the Syrian government for a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people last week, but declined to back a retaliatory military strike, leaving President Barack Obama without the broad regional support he had for his last fresh military intervention in the Arab world - in Libya in 2011.

While the Obama administration has robust European backing and more muted Arab support for a strike on Syria, the position of the Arab League and the unlikelihood of securing authorisation from the UN Security Council complicate the legal and diplomatic case for the White House.

The White House said there was “no doubt” that President Bashar Assad’s government was responsible for the chemical weapons attack - an assessment shared by Britain, France and other allies - but it has yet to make clear if it has any intelligence directly linking Dr Assad to the attack. The administration said it planned to provide intelligence on the attack later this week.

As Mr Obama sought to shore up international support for military action, telephoning British prime minister David Cameron, administration officials said they did not regard the lack of an imprimatur from the Security Council or the Arab League as insurmountable hurdles, given the carnage last week.

US officials said the US did not seek an endorsement of military action from the Arab League. It sought condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and a clear assignment of responsibility for the attack to the Assad government, both of which the officials said they were satisfied they got.

The Obama administration has declined to spell out the legal justification that the president would use in ordering a strike, beyond saying that the large-scale use of chemical weapons violates international norms. But officials said he could draw on a range of treaties and statutes, from the Geneva Conventions to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Mr Obama, they said, could also cite the need to protect a vulnerable population, as his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, did in ordering Nato’s 78-day air campaign on Kosovo in 1999. Or he could invoke the “responsibility to protect” principle cited by some officials to justify the US-led bombing campaign in Libya.

“There is no doubt here that chemical weapons were used on a massive scale on August 21 outside of Damascus,” said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney. “There is also very little doubt, and should be no doubt for anyone who approaches this logically, that the Syrian regime is responsible for the use of chemical weapons on August 21 outside of Damascus.”

A number of nations in Europe and the Middle East, along with several humanitarian organisations, have joined the US in that assessment. But with the spectre of the faulty intelligence assessments before the Iraq war still hanging over US decision-making, and with polls showing only a small fraction of the US public supports military intervention in Syria, some officials in Washington said there needs to be some kind of a public presentation making the case for war.

A statement by the Arab League yesterday adds to the uncertainty, underscoring the complexity of the regional landscape, where years of turmoil have set off fierce sectarian fighting and a tidal wave of refugees and left many fearful that a US strike would further inflame tensions.

Leaders of the Arab world are deeply divided over a potential western airstrike against Syria in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, caught between deep public hostility to any kind of intervention and a tangle of shifting rivalries and allegiances.

The vast majority of Arabs are emotionally opposed to any western military action in the region no matter how humanitarian the cause, and no Arab nation or leader has publicly endorsed such a step, even in countries like the Persian Gulf monarchies whose diplomats for months have privately urged the West to step in. In the region, only Turkey has pledged to support intervention.

Behind the scenes, at least two closely allied Arab heavyweights, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, may be split over which enemy poses the greater immediate threat to their regional interests: the Sunni Islamists who dominate the Syrian rebels, or the Shia Iranian backers of Dr Assad.

The Arab League, a regional diplomatic forum that has already expelled Assad’s government, said in its statement that it holds “the Syrian regime responsible for this heinous crime”, but the statement also appeared to suggest that the specific “perpetrators” were not yet known and should be brought to international justice.

Stopping short of endorsing western intervention, the league called on the UN Security Council to “overcome the disagreements between its members” so it could “take the necessary deterring measures against the perpetrators of this crime, whose responsibility falls on the Syrian regime,” and end other abuses that “the Syrian regime has been committing.”

Obama administration officials, who asked not to be identified because they were talking about behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts, asserted that they were satisfied with the Arab League statement. “This was a big diplomatic step forward in laying the groundwork for actions the president might choose, and required days of aggressive diplomacy to avoid delay,” a senior administration official said last night.

“We know there’s a complicated dynamic inside the Arab League, including division over Egypt,” the official added. “But an unequivocal condemnation, unambiguous assignment of blame and unmistakable call for action to stop it from happening again was exactly what the doctor ordered.”

Polls show the vast majority of Arabs across the region view any US action as motivated by its own interest or Israel’s, no matter the context, perhaps because of the history of colonialism.

Even when the western intervention in Libya appeared to be a triumph for its people, he said, polls showed that most Arabs considered it the wrong decision. But while they will not say it publicly, several countries in the region have been working vigorously behind the scenes to topple the Assad government.

For two years, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have been shipping money and arms to rebels challenging Syrian troops. Neither Saudi Arabia nor any of the Sunni-dominated gulf states have publicly endorsed western intervention. But all feel threatened by the regional rivalry with Iran, and all have privately urged the western powers to intervene on behalf of the rebels, western diplomats say.

At the Arab League meeting yesterday, Arab diplomats said, Saudi Arabia pushed for stronger language explicitly condemning Dr Assad for launching the attack, which would have come closer to helping the western powers justify military action. But Egypt, still the most populous Arab state with the largest Arab military, disagreed, Arab diplomats said.

“It shows the schizophrenia of the Arab world,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, noting that gulf states and Jordan also appear to be working closely with the West on possible intervention while refusing to endorse it publicly.

But their silence created a potential problem for the United States and its European allies, he said, because it undermined the notion of a broad-based coalition with Arab support. “And every day that it goes on, opponents will try to exploit it,” he said.

New York Times