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Steinbach: Syria's Assad ignores Arab League

Major changes are ahead for the Arab League, says Middle East expert Udo Steinbach. Despite lacking influence in Syria, he thinks the organization could play a larger role in world affairs - particularly for Palestine.

DW: It seems like the Arab League has undergone serious changes since the revolutions. How do you see recent developments in the League?

Udo Steinbach: That the Arab League got involved in the Syria question and then suspended Syria's membership in the League was a political gesture demonstrating its ability to act. If the Arab League as an organization fails to create change then it's in the company of other, more-renowned institutions like the United Nations and the European Union, which have only been able to pass symbolic policies when it comes to Syria. The Arab League doesn't go beyond that.

To what extent are changes in the League connected to changes in the region?

Udo Steinbach

Steinbach said change is afoot in the Arab League

They are very closely related. The Arab League notices these changes, which is visible in its chairman, the Egyptian Nabil Elaraby. He's hardly connected to the autocratic regime of the Mubarak era. Instead, he answers to the revolution, to the movement for change in his own country. But even the Saudis and Qataris, as well as other nations that don't actually want change and are avoiding it, cannot completely escape. They have to at least pretend to be prepared to support the new forces from time to time.

What does that leave us to expect from the Arab League in the future?

That's still difficult to say at the moment. The power of Egypt, formerly a primary one, has decreased. That has led to the situation - some might say, the absurd situation - that the Emirate of Qatar, a small but rich nation, is beginning to take on a leadership role. This is happening simultaneously as another major power, namely Saudi Arabia, does the same. Individual member states have very different agendas. Mr. Morsi speaks out for democracy, to his credit. Other Arab governments, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others, are in favor of change but do not necessarily want democracy. This is causing certain difficulties, since power relationships in the Arab League have not yet been completely rebalanced.

Udo Steinbach

Steinbach said change is afoot in the Arab League

The Arab League has again made a clear statement about Syria. Egyptian President Morsi called on Bashar Assad to resign. How much of an effect do you think such appeals really have? How much influence does the League have over the Assad regime?

The Arab League has practically no influence in Damascus. Bashar Assad does not listen to it at all anymore. From his point of view, in the past weeks and months, more important powers have sent their own messages. The new envoy from the United Nations and the Arab League, Lakhdar Brahimi, nearly threw in the towel before his mission even really began. It's clear that Bashar Assad does not give any importance at all to statements from the League's envoy.

The League also commented on a Palestinian appeal for recognition as a member of the United Nations. How do you see this decision?

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Morsi said Assad should step down

It will carry a certain weight. First of all, it strengthens the Palestinians' hand and Palestine's leadership. The international community as a whole, including the United States and most European countries, is largely against it. It's convenient for the Arab side to show its closeness to Palestine, and demonstrate that it stands behind the Palestinians. It's a call that Berlin, Brussels, London and Paris - and maybe even Washington - cannot easily ignore. The Arabs have stated their position, which cannot go without being remarked on - including by policymakers in Berlin. The German chancellor decided to vote against the petition, but there are some strong voices among our political class calling to support the Palestinians on this path toward provisional statehood. In the end, even if its influence is limited, I think what the Arab League says about Palestine is more important, and in the end have more of an effect, than what it does concerning Syria.

Udo Steinbach is emeritus Islam scholar. He has headed the Governance Center Middle East/North Africa at the Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance in Berlin since June 2012.

Interview: Kersten Knipp / sms
Editor: Sonya Diehn

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