Can the Arab League Monitors Stop Syria's Bloodbath?

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AFP / Getty Images

A video grab shows a Syrian tank driving through the city of Homs on Dec. 26, 2011

The Arab League began its one-month mission to Syria on Tuesday, Dec. 27, with a small contingent of monitors visiting the stubbornly defiant, besieged city of Homs, and one thing is already clear: it's going to be a long month.

There were reports from activists earlier in the day that security forces had withdrawn about a dozen tanks from parts of the city and even, as they claimed, "hid" others on the grounds of government buildings to manipulate the facts on the scene. Activists had a separate version of reality, saying that anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 to 70,000 residents took to the streets to protest, emboldened by the presence of the monitors and determined to show that opponents of President Bashar Assad are not rampaging gangs of armed terrorists, as the regime has repeatedly claimed, but unarmed citizens demanding freedom.

Several snippets of amateur video footage posted on YouTube show crowds of men and women reportedly in the streets near Homs' Clock Square (renamed Freedom Square by the protesters), but the landmark tower is not clearly seen in the shaky images. In a live stream posted on the Internet, thousands of people are seen chanting Allahu akbar ("God is great"). Some of the women in the crowd ululate; others hold up framed portraits of recently deceased loved ones. A brief staccato of gunfire can be heard, followed by thunderous chants of "Freedom forever, whether you want it or not, Assad!" In another video, posted in the afternoon, hundreds of men are seen running away from the cameraman, who sputters out the date amid a coughing fit. "We've been teargassed," he says as mist hovers above the fleeing men and gunshots ring out. Some of the men are carrying olive branches. "Death, death, but not surrender!" they yell.

Activists question how free and unhindered the observers will be, given that the Syrian regime is responsible for their security. Still, on Tuesday, the small group that toured Homs, Syria's third largest city, reportedly did so without being accompanied by uniformed security forces, according to Syrian rights activists. They met a handful of military defectors as well as the city's proregime governor. Syria's Ad-Dunia TV, a mouthpiece of the Assad regime, said the observers were "checking the damage left by the terrorist groups in Bab Sbaa [a battered neighborhood in Homs] and meeting with one of those who were kidnapped and families of the martyrs."

A video posted online Tuesday by activists allegedly shows several men pleading with the observers to visit the stricken neighborhood of Baba Amr, which has been repeatedly attacked by security forces. The man identified as a monitor — bald, mustachioed, in a tan jacket and blue shirt, with green lanyards around his neck — casually smokes a cigarette as he tells a distressed young man that only the head of the team can make a public statement. "Say what you saw," the young man says, grabbing the monitor's arm. "My brother, you are saying that only the head of the delegation can make a public statement. You were telling him that you cannot cross the second street because the snipers are shooting from the buildings. This isn't a public statement, my brother, we are dying. This is reality! You saw it!"

Two men, presumably monitors, appear on the video in fluorescent orange vests, surrounded by residents of Baba Amr. "Twenty martyrs!" a local resident says. "Go inside. Go inside and see what is there! They have butchered us, I swear to God!" another man pleads amid gunshots.

Ad-Dunia TV reported that the monitors wrapped up their day's work at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, prompting some on Twitter to sarcastically demand observers who are familiar with working at least eight-hour days. Some opposition members fear that the Arab League mission has bought Assad a month's reprieve, as it gives the Syrian President a veneer of cooperation with the pan-Arab body even as the crackdown continues and his loyalists show the team what they want to show and hide what they want to hide. Still, the fact that Assad responded to pressure and allowed the monitors into the country indicates that he has at least acknowledged that the issue is bigger than his government and transcends his borders.

Syria reluctantly admitted the observers only after the Arab League threatened to possibly take the issue to the United Nations Security Council. The regional organization put forward the proposal for monitors in early November. The monitors are tasked with ascertaining whether the government has implemented the league's demands that it withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from residential areas, cease violence and start a real and substantive dialogue with its opponents. So far, Damascus has payed lip service to the deal and continued its brutal crackdown. The findings of the mission (which is renewable after the first month is over) will determine what action, if any, is taken against the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, once again, activists said the day's death toll was in the double digits. The U.N. estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the 10-month uprising.