A team of Arab League observers arrived in Syria earlier this week, creating hopes of a letup in the government’s brutal crackdown on protesters. But the monitors themselves are now facing scrutiny due to the questionable selection of the official heading the team.
Foreign Policy reports the mission’s leader is a “Sudanese general accused of creating the fearsome ‘janjaweed,’ which was responsible for the worst atrocities during the Darfur genocide.” The magazine reports Sudanese Gen. Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi:
… may be the unlikeliest leader of a humanitarian mission the world has ever seen. He is a staunch loyalist of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity for his government's policies in Darfur. And Dabi's own record in the restive Sudanese region, where he stands accused of presiding over the creation of the feared Arab militias known as the "janjaweed," is enough to make any human rights activist blanch.
Human rights groups are criticizing the general’s appointment. Amnesty International says it raises questions about the mission’s credibility:
"The Arab League's decision to appoint as the head of the observer mission a Sudanese general on whose watch severe human rights violations were committed in Sudan risks undermining the League's efforts so far and seriously calls into question the mission's credibility," it said in a statement.
Adding to the concerns is General Dabi’s initial assessment of the situation on the ground in Syria. On his first visit to Homs – site of fierce clashes and much bloodshed – Dabi said he had seen “nothing frightening.” Later, he said he needed more time to assess the city:
"Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening," Sudanese General Mustafa Dabi, the chief of the monitoring contingent, told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.
"The situation seemed reassuring so far," he said on Wednesday after his team's short visit to the city of one million people, Syria's third largest and epicenter of nine months of anti-Assad unrest.
Reuters reports the city was “was pounded by government firepower in the days before the visit,” adding the Arab League observers returned Wednesday to Homs with an army escort, “to the dismay of demonstrators who mobbed their car.” Assad loyalists also paid a heavy price as Free Syria Army rebels reportedly targeted government soldiers.
Still, the Obama administration has “confidence in the mission.” State Department Spokesman Mark Toner on Wednesday was asked if Dabi’s reassuring assessment was disturbing. Toner said:
“It was just day one. It was one small area of Homs. We need to let this mission get up and running, let them do their job, and then let them give their judgment.”
Also raising questions about Dabi’s initial assessment is amateur video of clashes in Homs purportedly taken Tuesday while monitors were visiting the embattled city. Like all such videos coming from Syria, its authenticity cannot be verified:
Al Jazeera posted this video Wednesday of Arab League monitors taking cover amid gunfire in the streets of Homs. At another point in the video, the body of a 5-year-old is placed on the hood of an observer team vehicle:
Human rights groups are concerned the Arab League team is, at about 50 members, too small to make a difference, that biographical information about its members has not been released and that they are totally dependent on Assad officials to escort them around Syria.
Rebels are worried Syria will use a clean rating from the Arab League monitors – along with continued Iranian support - as cover to continue the crackdown which according to the United Nations has already claimed 5,000 lives, an estimated one third of which were killed in Homs.