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Arab League left with no influence in Syria

The Arab League has no influence on the West or the Assad regime. But the league of Arab states could still play an important role in the Syria conflict, German political scientist Josef Janning told DW in an interview.

DW: What is the Arab League's position on the conflict in Syria?

Josef Janning: The Arab League suspended Syria's membership quite some time ago, sending a clear signal of distancing itself from Assad. In its latest statement, the Arab League explicitly condemned the regime's actions. But it didn't formulate an immediate consequence, with the exception of an appeal to the countries in the UN Security Council to make yet another communication effort.

That shows the League is split on the issue of how to react. Should the West be given more or less full powers, or not? Some Arab League members would have gone that far, others did not agree.

Which states stand opposed in this matter?

One of the lines of conflict runs between the states on the Gulf and the North African states. To an extent, the Gulf states are much more open to punishing Assad than the states in North Africa. Saudi Arabia and Qatar stand out with their demand that Assad has to go. But they don't want to be the ones that give Washington carte blanche, the reason being the attempt to keep the balance between the Arab claim to regulate relations and stability interests, in particular by Saudi Arabia.

Representatives of Arab countries STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Arab leaders are split over a potential western airstrike

In the meantime, a military operation by the West against the Assad regime looks likely. Would the Arab League accept western military strike?

It wouldn't have the means to prevent it, but most likely the League would not approve of such an operation. If it did, it could in the meantime have given indirect indications pointing in that direction. The Arab League's actual position will not emerge until they see what is happening and what the reactions are. The Arabs are basically leaving the door open in order not to be caught on the wrong foot. They have practically no influence on the planning and realization of such a military strike.

The Arab League has been quite defensive concerning measures against Syria: they demanded a military option must be based on a UN resolution. Does public opinion in the League's member states play a role?

The Arab people are definitely reserved with regard to outside military intervention in domestic Arab issues. That is true across the political spectrum. Secular as well as the more religious or Islamist forces are spurred on by the conviction that you should help and support from the outside, but you should not intervene. Politics and diplomacy in Arab states must first ascertain in how far public opinion will support their action. That is not quite as relevant on the Arab peninsula, where public opinion has less influence on the rulers, but it a very important factor in North Africa and Jordan.

Is the Arab world merely an observer in Syria or could it still play a role in the conflict?

Of course the League can play a role. One important role would be to better coordinate members' conduct. The radicalization of the Syria conflict has caused weapons shipments from the Arab World to reach Syria before Western states had even considered equipping the rebels with arms. Meanwhile, numerous jihadists who operate internationally are in the country. Covertly, several Arab states definitely support their infiltration of Syria.

Saudi Arabia is set on a course that is a bit odd from a European point of view: on the one hand, the efforts toward a good relationship with the US and the other Western states, and on the other hand, financial support of more radical forces is apparent again and again - in so far as they don't operate on the Arab peninsula themselves.

Josef Janning Photo: DGAP

The Arab League is waiting to see how the situation develops, Janning said

An important task for the Arab League would be to try to more strongly coordinate implied reaction and indirect intervention from within the Arab world in such conflicts and to present a more united front to the outside.

A second task would be to help in the case of a chance to create a new political order in Syria, and to stabilize this order as quickly as possible. In such a process, they could also contribute to keeping under control the numerous conventional and non-conventional weapons in the country.

But the role of mediator would most probably be difficult for the Arab League as long as Assad is still in the country?

It has dropped the role of mediator. But Assad also made it clear to the other players in the Arab League that he does not set great store by their participation and influence in this conflict. He himself shut the door to the Arab League, so that is no real influence. It would only have an influence if Assad needed the League or felt he needed it.

League representatives are not content with this situation, but at this time, the Arab League itself has no means to change the situation.

Josef Janning studied political science, international relations, history and German at the Universities of Bonn and Cologne. He is a Mercator Fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).