Middle East

Arab League Weighs Monitoring Mission In Syria

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Arab foreign ministers are meeting in Cairo on Sunday to decide whether or not to continue the Arab League's monitoring mission in violence-torn Syria. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.


We go now to Egypt, where a group of foreign ministers from the Arab League is meeting today. There are news reports that the group has decided to extend a month-long observer mission in Syria.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has been tracking events there, and she joins us now from Cairo. Welcome to the program, Lulu.


MARTIN: First off, can you give us a little more about the decision to extend? What do you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, they've opted - as we've pretty much knew they would, Rachel - to extend the mission for one more month. They'll be expanding, apparently, how many observers will be in there, for a start, which will allow it a much more robust presence.

You know, this mission has been fraught with difficulty. The observers were pretty much thrown in there. They didn't have a lot of logistical support; a few had training. They're only about 165 of them. And they found themselves in a tough spot in Syria. On the one hand, the pro-Assad people dislike them. They've had their vehicles stoned as they drive by, on their way to towns or cities where there's been fighting.

On the other hand, the opposition inside Syria, I think, fundamentally has misunderstood their role. This is an observer mission. It has no mandate to intervene, even if they witness violence. Their role is to witness and report.

MARTIN: The observer mission chief, I understand, wanted this mission extended. What does he think he can accomplish by staying longer on the ground in Syria?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the idea is that the one month was simply not enough time. With more monitors and more support, he feels they can fulfill the objectives of the mission. And also, there's a general feeling - if not this, than what? The path forward for the international community, and for the Arab League, isn't clear regarding Syria. The head of the mission feels that they've been able to make a difference on the ground; that they can make more of a difference if the mission is allowed to continue.

But, you know, it's been very controversial. People allege this mission is toothless. Monitors, as you know, have quit, alleging they haven't been allowed to witness the truth inside Syria. They also say the mandate is generally weak; it has no power to stop the violence. Also, you know, the head of this mission is a Sudanese general whose president is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. So people wonder what he's doing heading this kind of operation, and if he can be trusted.

You know, basically, everyone is grappling with what to do about Syria. And unlike Libya, there's a real reluctance on the part of the international community for intervention.

MARTIN: The Syrian opposition didn't want this mission extended, but why?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the Syrian National Council met with the head of the Arab League before this meeting today. And they asked him to scrap the mission, and refer the Syria file to the United Nations Security Council. They're hoping that the U.N. will give a mandate for intervention, similar to what happened in Libya. They want actual intervention. They say look, this mission isn't working. It's been giving the Assad regime cover to commit more atrocities. Five hundred people have been killed since the mission began - other groups say it's close to a thousand people.

And so the Syrian National Council has prepared its own counter-report, to show what it says are the inadequacies of the observers' report. But frankly, they're in a tough spot as well. You know, it's not really clear that even if this was given to the United Nations Security Council, what would happen. Russia is a staunch supporter of the Assad regime. And so Russia is likely to use its veto for any resolution authorizing intervention.

MARTIN: And quickly, Lulu, has there been any response from the leader of Syria to this decision - Bashar al-Assad?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the decision actually hasn't come out fully yet. And Syria does have to actually agreed to have the mission extended. And also, if there are going to be more monitors put in place, it also has to agree to those terms. So we're still waiting to find out exactly what the terms of this new mission will be and what, exactly, is going to change on the ground.

MARTIN: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Cairo. Thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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