The Arab League has had observers to monitor the violent situation in Syria for less than a fortnight, but they are already a source of derision. The Syrian opposition claims that the roughly 100 monitors, deployed to oversee the army's withdrawal from urban areas, have been manipulated and fed disinformation by the government. There have been accusations that the military has used the observers' presence as a cover for increased violence. Perhaps most notoriously, the League selected a Sudanese general associated with the war in Darfur to lead the mission. The observers, dressed in brightly-colored waistcoats and armed only with digital cameras, often look lost and ineffectual.
In any plausible scenario, the monitors were never going to have a decisive impact on Syria. Although the Syrian government promised that it would halt military operations against civilians in December, few analysts took this promise seriously. A handful of observers were not going to change political calculations in Damascus, especially as they have neither their own guards nor secure communications equipment -- leaving them excessively reliant on Syrian assistance to monitor and report anything at all.
With no recent experience of mounting peace operations, the Arab League lacks the basic command structures and doctrines required to give even a small mission like this credibility. But it would be a mistake to imagine that other organisations with greater field experience -- such as the United Nations or European Union -- would have done a vastly better job given the huge constraints on the mission.
Indeed, U.N. and EU planners would probably have refused to get involved in such a venture. Most international organisations avoid putting unarmed observers into escalating conflicts altogether, not least because they are always likely to be rendered inoperative by safety concerns. The historical precedents for the Arab League's efforts are bad, as I pointed out in a report on multilateral missions and conflict prevention for the United States Institute of Peace published in December. It's worth comparing the Syrian operation with a similar -- and unsuccessful -- mission deployed to Kosovo in 1998.
The Kosovo Verification Mission was deployed under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in late 1998 after the Yugoslav government promised to halt military operations against the Kosovo Albanians. It had far greater resources than the Arab League can muster, with over 1,400 observers and a NATO extraction force next door in Macedonia. It enjoyed considerably greater freedom of movement than the League's team has had so far. Yet it failed to deter continued violence, and had to be withdrawn in 1999 when NATO decided to resolve the conflict with air power.
So it's no surprise that the Arab League's initial deployment has failed to bring peace to Syria. And while League officials have promised to deploy additional monitors and asked the U.N. for "technical help", it's unlikely that extra personnel or even better mission-management and leadership are going to make the operation really effective. But this doesn't mean that it has no purpose.
While the observers may be failing in their stated goal - to help ensure that the Syrian army halts attacks on civilians - they have already played a significant role in underlining the brutality and untrustworthiness of the Syrian regime. There was previously copious evidence of the regime's violence from refugees, human rights activists, undercover journalists, and U.N. reports. But the observer mission's presence has magnified outside awareness of these abuses, especially because the media have tracked the observers' every move. Although the mission's leadership has mishandled relations with the press, individual observers have been frank with journalists about abuses they have witnessed and the limitations they are under -- effectively circumnavigating the constraints on their formal reporting lines.
The fact that atrocities appear to be ongoing while the observers are in place also raises the diplomatic stakes. Arab politicians and commentators have already demanded that the mission should withdraw in protest at Syria's behavior, and the monitors' public difficulties will surely increase tensions between Damascus and the rest of the League. It is a sad truth of international politics that governments and international organisations are often far more concerned about attacks on their own credibility than human rights abuses. The Arab League, having won a new degree of credibility by taking a tough stance on Libya nearly a year ago, now finds its reputation tied to its observers' performance in Syria.
Some League officials appear to be aiming to downplay the observers' difficulties and highlight cases of cooperation with the government. Almost all peacekeeping missions fall prey to "happy reporting" of this type at one time or another, but it is a mistake. If the League is to maintain any leverage over Syria, it should address claims that the monitors are being manipulated head on and threaten to penalise Damascus for its contempt. Unfortunately, the League has few policy options left open -- especially as Iraq and Lebanon are opposed to any moves that could destabilise their neighbor Syria further.
But the Syrian authorities should not assume that they can mistreat the League's observers with impunity. This is another lesson from Kosovo: in early 1999, monitors from Kosovo Verification Mission reported on the murder of over forty ethnic Albanians in the village of Racak. The mission's chief spoke out over the atrocity, and the discovery played an important part in pushing NATO to a military solution.
So even though the Verification Mission failed to halt the violence it witnessed in Kosovo, it acted as a trigger for more decisive international action. The Arab League's observers in Syria could potentially play a similar triggering role. They may stumble across acts of unquestionable government brutality they cannot ignore or play down -- a "Racak moment" that seizes global attention -- or admit they cannot fulfill their mandate and withdraw. In either case, there would be renewed pressure for stronger actions against Syria whether through the U.N. or (if Russia and China use their Security Council vetoes) even NATO. The Syrian authorities may believe they have the Arab League's personnel under control, but they may discover that this small, ill-fated mission is the prelude to a far more serious intervention.
This article first appeared in Foreign Policy.