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 UN 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 Arab 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 — 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 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 UN 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, the outcome at the Arab League failed to deliver the 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.