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Could Arab League’s Monitoring Efforts Help End Bloodshed in Syria?

December 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Arab League peace monitors arrived Tuesday in Syria's embattled city of Homs, where up to 70,000 protesters turned out. Gwen Ifill discusses international efforts to end the country's bloodshed with Matt Bradley of The Wall Street Journal.
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the Arab League’s efforts to monitor the situation in Syria, we’re joined by Matt Bradley of The Wall Street Journal in Cairo, where the Arab League headquarters are located. I spoke with him a short time ago.

Matt Bradley, we’re hearing now that over 5,000 people have been killed in the last nine months of these uprisings in Syria. Do we have any reason to believe that the arrival of these monitors are going to change things?

MATT BRADLEY, The Wall Street Journal: Well, they’re going to change things in the sense that they’re going to give the Arab countries the political will to move forward with international efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria.

So, right now, really what we’re seeing is an interim moment in the diplomatic effort to try to solve this problem. So the observers themselves, as people on the ground in Homs today noticed, are not going to actually be able to stop any of the violence, but what they will be able to do is report back to the Arab League on whether or not the Bashar al-Assad regime has complied with the agreement made early last week.

And then, after that, they’ll be able — the Arab League will be able to decide whether or not to renew the observer league mission — this could last for several months — or to proceed with further deliberative negotiations within the Arab League on what to do in terms of next steps, whether or not to bring this issue to the Security Council…

GWEN IFILL: I want to talk about the Security…

MATT BRADLEY: … to talk about sanctions, to talk about possibly intervention.

GWEN IFILL: I want to talk about the Security Council, but I’m also curious about who these monitors are. Who are these observers? Who do they represent? Are they teachers? Are they human rights activists? Are they government officials?

MATT BRADLEY: Yes, from what I heard from people at the Arab League, it’s that they are lawyers, they’re doctors, they’re human rights activists.

They’re people who represent an activist community, military experts, people who represent sort of the upper echelon of a variety of Arab states and people who would be able to have the disciplines that would be able to evaluate what’s going on, on the ground in Syria and provide some level of expertise in reporting back to the Arab League.

GWEN IFILL: Of course, we’re talking to you tonight from Cairo, and because Western journalists are not allowed in by Damascus to see this for yourselves, so just a reporting question. How do you know what’s going on, on the ground? How can you find out?

MATT BRADLEY: Well, I don’t actually.

We have some contacts with dissidents who are on the ground in Syria. Mainly, I speak to the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, which is based in the United Kingdom. And they have contacts throughout the region.

We can talk to the Syrian National Council, which has representatives in France and in Ankara in Turkey. And so we can get a pretty good picture. And also we have refugees who are coming into Turkey and into Lebanon, though Lebanon to a lesser extent.

But we can get an accurate picture of what’s going on, on the ground in Syria just by making a phone call to Damascus or to other cities throughout the region. So they’re easily reached by telephone. But it’s hard to verify videos that are coming out of Syria. And it’s very difficult to know — to sort of separate the fact from fiction that’s going on without having objective observers on the ground, because you’re hearing from activists who are watching the violence happen.

They’re part of it. And so they’re not necessarily going to be getting the best, the best, most unbiased picture.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the potential for U.N. sanctions. There were — the Arab League itself put in place sanctions, I guess last month, in November. Is there any sign that they have been working, that they have had any impact?

MATT BRADLEY: Yes, they’ve had some pretty serious economic problems for Syria.

Syria, right now, has had difficulty in terms of its foreign exchange reserve, which has made it difficult for them to prop up their currency. And so they’re definitely feeling the pressure. However, the efforts to — especially by the Arab League, to impose sanctions are constrained because they don’t want to hurt the Syrian population who they consider to be innocent victims of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

So it’s very difficult to choose exactly what — where to place these sanctions and on what commodities to place them. And, of course, there are other countries such as Iraq neighboring to Syria who don’t want to comply and will be reluctant to do so.

GWEN IFILL: But you raise another interesting question. When you talk about the potential for U.N. intervention, the reality of the Arab League intervention, the sanctions, to what extent for Assad is this just buying time? It’s going to take a while for any of these things to happen.

MATT BRADLEY: Well, this is what a lot of the dissidents, a lot of the opponents of the government are saying, is that the Assad regime is simply using this as a delay tactic, so that they can have some level of appeasement, they can mollify the foreign community to a certain extent, while going about the business of suppressing dissent inside Syria.

Of course, at the same time, some of the analysts that I’ve been speaking to have said that this is buying time for the Western governments as well, that the United States and Europe, they don’t want to have to intervene in Syria. The Libyan exercise was very successful, but it was also very risky. And Syria will be an entirely different story.

So, Syria is no Libya. And what this is essentially doing is buying time for everybody. The West doesn’t want to have to create their own endgame for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, especially if that means military intervention that could potentially really unravel what is a fulcrum of Middle East power, the balance between Iran and other Arab states and Israel on the other side.

GWEN IFILL: So the next shoe to drop is?

MATT BRADLEY: The United Nations.

After the reporters from — or the observers from the Arab League go back to the Arab League, deliver their evaluation, the league will deliberate on whether or not they feel that they should back any plans to push for the United Nations to add international sanctions to the sanctions that the Arab League has already levied on to Syria.

Of course, this is going to be a very, very difficult effort because China and Russia have already stated that they are not going to be listening to any proposals that would involve sanctions and would definitely not be listening to any proposals that would involve foreign military intervention.

So it’s a very difficult game from here on out, because Syria is such a crucial state to the wider Middle East. So, having any diplomatic intervention, even if it’s just financial sanctions, it is going to be very difficult to get the entire international community on board in order to do that.

In order to make the sanctions effective and in a real way, there needs to be a lot of players from around the region and from a lot — around the world participating in sanctions and really truly isolating the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

GWEN IFILL: Matt Bradley at The Wall Street Journal reporting tonight from Cairo, thank you so much.

MATT BRADLEY: Thank you.