CAIRO — The Arab League on Sunday urged international action against the Syrian government to deter what it called the “ugly crime” of using chemical weapons. It was a major step toward supporting Western military strikes but short of the explicit endorsement that the United States and some Persian Gulf allies had hoped for.
The League moved beyond the more cautious stance it took just a few days ago, when it asked the U.N. Security Council to overcome its internal differences on the Syrian conflict — an outcome that was extremely unlikely given Russia’s strong support for Syria’s president, Bashar Assad.
This time, the League called for the United Nations and “the international community” at large to exercise their responsibilities under international law “to take the necessary measures” against the Syrian government. But aside from calling for trials of the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks, the resolution — adopted at a meeting in Cairo late Sunday night — did not specify what kind of international measures might be needed or justified.
Obama administration officials considered the statement a step forward because it opened the door to action outside the Security Council. But many in the region said the ambiguity was the latest manifestation of Washington’s diminishing influence.
President Barack Obama’s last-minute pullback to seek a vote in Congress on military intervention put some of his Arab allies in a bind, analysts meeting with Arab diplomats said. Hoping to produce a strong Arab League statement to provide cover for Washington, Arab leaders also had new cause to wonder if Obama would follow through, leaving them politically exposed at home if they risked overt support for Western intervention in the region.
“He is seen as feckless and weak, and this will only give further rise to conspiracy theories that Obama doesn’t really want Assad out and it is all a big game,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center and a former U.N. envoy in the region. “Many Arab leaders already think that Obama’s word cannot be trusted — I am talking about his friends and allies — and I am afraid this will reinforce that belief.”
On Sunday afternoon, some Arab diplomats sought to portray themselves as stepping forward to take the lead in the Syrian crisis after Obama abruptly pulled back from any immediate military action the day before, surprising many Arab leaders just hours before they had expected airstrikes might begin.
But by the end of the night on Sunday, the outcome at the Arab League failed to deliver the strong call to arms that Saudi Arabia and some others had sought as a way of encouraging the United States to press on with a strike.
Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies have privately urged the United States to take decisive military action to topple the government of Assad, whom they view as the main regional ally of their foe, Iran. Some, including Jordan and other Gulf states, are already collaborating with the United States to try to train and equip the Syrian rebels.
But before Sunday, none had come close to publicly calling for Western military intervention, in part because the notion is so deeply unpopular among citizens across the Arab world. And Egypt, the recipient of $1.5 billion a year in U.S. aid and for decades a stalwart ally, has actively opposed Western intervention in Syria since the military takeover that ousted President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Arab League’s resolution thus represented a double compromise: between the supporters and opponents of Western intervention within the chamber but also between the conflicting desires to urge on the West while at the same time to avoid getting caught at it.
Saudi Arabia on Sunday gave the strongest public call by any Arab government for international military action.
In a news conference in Cairo before the Arab League meeting, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, accused opponents of Western military action of abetting the mass killing of Syrians by Assad’s government. Such Arab states were telling Syrians, “I will not help you and I will not allow you to be helped by others,” he said.
“We demand that the international community does the action required to stop the bloodshed,” the foreign minister said at the news conference. “We support them in this, and we don’t find condemnation and denouncement enough. We instead support the international community to use its resources to stop the aggression on the Syrian people before they’re exterminated.”
Morocco, a North African kingdom newly embraced by the Persian Gulf monarchies as an ally after the Arab Spring revolts, also issued a strongly worded statement demanding the Assad government be held accountable for its use of chemical weapons. But in an interview, its foreign minister, Youssef Amrani, declined to say whether the kingdom would support a Western airstrike.
“When the American government will make a decision on this, we will respond,” he said.
Standing next to the Saudi foreign minister at the same news conference, his Egyptian counterpart came close to directly opposing the same international action that the Saudis called morally imperative. Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian foreign minister, called for internationally mediated talks between the Assad government and its opponents, “the political base that we think provides the best possible way to deal with the entire Syrian issue.”
Inside the chamber, Fahmy declared more forcefully that Egypt continued to “reject” any military action against Syria.
After Egypt signed on to the final resolution, many analysts pointed to the growing regional influence of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, which have extended Egypt billions of dollars in critical financial support since Morsi’s ouster, giving them the upper hand in the behind-the-scenes talks that crafted the resolution. But the Egyptians may have felt they could support the resolution because it made no reference to military force.