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.
Since the civil war gripped Syria in 2011, the nation has become a major theatre for geopolitical contestation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If Riyadh is angered by the Assad regime's crackdown against the Sunni majority in Syria, Tehran has become the main external supporters for Assad's ruling Alawite sect that is considered a branch of Shia Islam.
Iraq, where the Shia majority has been empowered by the U.S. invasion of 2003, has developed close ties to Iran and is reluctant to back international action against Damascus.
Cairo never had much political affection for Damascus or Tehran, but is unwilling to endorse Western intervention in Syria. As Egypt copes with its own current internal crisis, it has no desire to legitimize Western interference in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern states. At the same time Cairo does not want to oppose the Saudi Arabia which has become Cairo's major international backer after the army's ouster of President Mohamed Mursi last July.
Egypt is looking for a middle path. It is calling for an international effort to end the Syrian civil war through negotiations between the warring parties and its diplomats ensured that the Arab League resolution avoids any reference to direct military action against Syria.