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Arab League's Credibility Tested By Violence

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Arab League's Credibility Tested By Violence

Middle East

Arab League's Credibility Tested By Violence

Arab League's Credibility Tested By Violence

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The ongoing violence in Syria is testing the power — and credibility — of the Arab League. Host Audie Cornish speaks with Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, for some context on the Arab League.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The current uprising in Syria and the Assad regime's violent response to it are testing the power and credibility of the Arab League. Its member states are leading an effort at the United Nations to broker peace there. The move comes after the League sent monitors to Syria, only to pull them out after a brutal government offensive around Damascus.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Further complicating matters or the League of Arab States is this. Many of its members represent the same kind of entrenched, often repressive, government that Arab Spring protestors have been fighting against. Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says Syria poses a fundamental problem for the Arab League. It must find a way to stop the violence and force a political transition without relying on Western force to do it.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I've a done a poll in six Arab countries over what's happening in Syria and 86 percent of the Arab public support the rebels over the government. But Arab public is still very suspicious of international intervention and even to this day, over what should have been an issue of unanimity, Libya. Arabs are still divided on whether it was a good idea for the international community to intervene.

In fact, a plurality of Arabs in the November poll, said that they think it was the wrong idea for the international community to intervene. So there are these two contradictory trends within the Arab public. On the one hand, they really are rooting against the governments. On the other hand, they don't want to see foreign intervention. And there is no one to do the job for them.

CORNISH: Shibley Telhami, essentially has the reputation of the Arab League changed or is it only more complicated by the politics of the last year?

TELHAMI: It has become more complicated, no doubt. In part, because, remember, this is made up of states and rulers that have been there for a long time and the whole thing about the Arab awakening is targeting rulers that have been there for a long time. It's been more complicated by the fact that the cluster of power has shifted to the Gulf by virtue of Egypt going through turmoil, Iraq being out of the picture, Syria being out of the picture and so there is as sense in the Arab public that there is limitations as to what the Arab League is able to do.

They have been more assertive diplomatically, particularly at the international arena. The fact that they actually sought U.N. intervention in Libya was unusual for the Arab League. This is not something that they have done in the past.

CORNISH: At this point, is the League really changing its reputation, people who thought it was toothless or it was complicit in the past, do they actually see a difference in the actions they're taking now?

TELHAMI: No. And I think, if anything, it's been a series of frustration. I think the mission that they sent to Syria has, universal, been seen as a failed mission.

CORNISH: And this was the observer mission to go...

TELHAMI: The observer mission.

CORNISH: ...there and try and stem the violence against...

TELHAMI: Yes. And clearly, it didn't happen. It's seen, even by the Arab League, as having failed. They've pulled it and the Arab public is frustrated because they see the death and the killings every single day on television. The coverage of Syria is still tremendous in the Arab press. And so they were seeing the death. They're seeing the destruction, the violence. They want it stopped, just on humanitarian ground, even regardless of the politics of it.

They don't know how to do it. They don't think the Arab League is doing it. They're watching the U.N. being helpless and that's the state of affairs and state of mind of the Arab public right now.

CORNISH: So, what does this mean for the Arab League, going forward? They're going to have a big summit this year and there's been so much changes in terms of the membership, the leaders of the membership in that group. What should we look for in the next few months that would signify change?

TELHAMI: Oh, well, I doubt that we're going to see much, in part, because they're really crippled by the structure. I mean, in essence, the GCC states have their interests to protect, the Secretary General's capacity to move independently is very limited because he can't get the states to do what he wants them to do ad he's dependent on them for funding. He has a lot of respect, but at some point, his credibility starts being undermined by virtue of saying things and being optimistic and it doesn't happen.

So, I think right now, obviously, that's why the focal point is specifically on the Russia question because, clearly, at the U.N., the Russian opposition to a proposed Arab resolution has been the sore point in the debate and whether or not the Arab League, and particularly Secretary General, are able to persuade Russia to go along with some form of a statement on Syria that coincides with their position, that will be the real test in the next few days.

CORNISH: Shibley Telhami, he's a professor at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for talking with us.

TELHAMI: My pleasure.

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