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The Arab Divide on Syria

As the U.S. President Barack Obama seeks domestic and international support for the planned bombing campaign against Syria, the Arab League has held the Bashar al Assad regime responsible for the use of chemical weapons and called for international action against Damascus.

At an urgently convened meeting of its foreign ministers in Cairo on Sunday, the 22- member Arab League urged “the UN and international community to take the deterrent and necessary measures against the culprits of this crime that the Syrian regime bears responsibility for.” The League also demanded “the punishment and prosecution of all those involved in such a crime at international tribunals, to be tried similarly to those convicted of war crimes.”

Could the Arab League’s apparent endorsement of the U.S. military action, currently on hold, provide the much needed international legitimacy for Obama’s Syrian intervention? Recall that the Arab League’s support was critical in 2011 when the U.S. and its allies intervened in Libya going way beyond what the United Nations Security Council had authorized.

But the Libyan case is vastly different from that of Syria. The maverick Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had few friends in the Arab League. Unlike Libya, Syria is a critical element of the regional balance of power in the Middle East.

On Syria, the League is deeply divided on both sectarian and geopolitical fault lines. Nor is the League neutral in Syria. The Arab League has already suspended the Assad regime and has seated the main opposition group, Syrian National Council in its place.

The Saudi foreign minister, Saud-al-Faisal made a strong pitch for international action against Damascus at a press conference before the Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo. He demanded that the international community act to prevent the “extermination of the Syrian people” by the Assad regime.

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