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Arab League support for arming Syrian rebels 'logical'

For the first time since Syria’s crisis began, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby said Wednesday the group would support members who choose to arm the rebels. FRANCE 24 spoke with regional expert Hasni Abidi, who described the move as a “logical” step.


With no end in sight to the violence in Syria nearly two years after the crisis began, the Arab League has stepped up its support for the opposition Syrian National Coalition and given the go-ahead for member nations to arm the rebel forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The move is a shift in the Arab League’s stance on the Syrian civil war. While in the past it had advocated political and humanitarian support for the opposition, it is the first time the organisation has condoned arming rebel forces.

In a statement issued on Wednesday (March 6), the Arab League stressed "the right of each state, according to its wishes, to offer all types of self-defence, including military, to support the resilience of the Syrian people and the Free [Syrian] Army”.

Not all Arab League member countries, however, backed the resolution. Of the 22 nations that make up the group, Iraq and Algeria refused to endorse the decision while Lebanon stated its staunch opposition to the plan.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby also announced that ministers had invited the Syrian National Coalition to occupy Syria’s seat in the group. The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in November 2011.

FRANCE 24 spoke with Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Centre for the Arab and Mediterranean World, who discussed the political and practical implications of the Arab League’s decision.

FRANCE 24: What does the Arab League’s decision to support the Syrian opposition signify?

Hasni Abidi: They have finally realised that their joint mediation mission with the UN in Syria, which is led by Lakhdar Brahimi, has failed. They are now resigned to the fact that Assad’s regime is not going to opt for a political solution to the crisis.

The situation on the ground is also at a stalemate. While the government in Damascus hasn’t been able to retake opposition-controlled land, rebel forces have struggled to neutralise the regular army or seize the capital. In the meantime, the Syrian people are the only ones who have really lost.

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The Arab League didn’t really have a choice, considering the situation. Its decision is a logical extension of its previous positions on the conflict. In November 2011, the organisation suspended Syria’s membership until Assad introduced a plan to end the violence. One year later, it recognised the opposition Syrian National Coalition as the country’s legitimate representative.

FRANCE 24: Lebanon has opposed the Arab League's move, which its foreign affairs minister, Adnan Mansour, characterised as “very dangerous”. Is the Arab League’s decision to back a military solution risky?

HA: This is where we must be careful. The Arab League is not going to organise buying weapons for opposition forces in Syria. It’s up to each individual member country to make its own decision on the issue. The text is really just a way of showing their political support.

What’s more, the Syrian National Council has to form a government before it can become a part of the Arab League, which they have failed to do for the past 10 months. They’ve been unable to agree on the executive branch and have trouble getting along. It’s far from being a done deal.

FRANCE 24: Damascus reacted to the Arab League’s decision by accusing the group of “being held hostage to the biased politics of … Qatar and Saudi Arabia” – two countries that support the rebel forces in Syria. Is there a threat of division in the Arab League?

HA: The majority of the organisation’s members supported the decision to back a military solution. If the Arab League gave in to pressure from the Gulf countries, specifically Qatar and Saudi Arabia, it’s because Doha and Riyadh were able to mobilise Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia on the issue. But that doesn’t mean that member countries will actually move to supply the Syrian National Coalition with arms. If anything, it’s an example of the kind of decision that will be made when Qatar takes over the Arab League’s rotating presidency at the end of March.

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