It seems that the 33 observers sent to Syria by the Iraqi government to take part in the Arab League’s controversial monitoring mission there will remain, by and large, shadowy figures. And it also seems that what they actually did in Syria will also remain a mystery.
The Iraqi government says that observers are property qualified for the job. But critics of the government’s initiative say the observers are all members of one political party, that they take their orders directly from the Iraqi executive and that they actually support the current Syrian regime, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, which has come under fire for its brutal repression of civilian protests.
Syrians have been protesting against their government since early last year and interactions between government forces and protestors have become increasingly violent, with the United Nations estimating that over 5,000 people have been killed in the conflict. Some government troops have defected and it seems, despite the fact that al-Assad still has support in Syria, the country is teetering on the brink of civil war.
The Arab League monitoring mission arrived in Syria on Dec. 26 last year and its work was based on an agreement between Syria and the 22 member League (which includes Syria itself). The monitoring mission was to stay in Syria for a month to observe what was happening between the al-Assad government and civilian protestors and to try and achieve some kind of mediation.
As a result, 166 observers were sent to Syria and deployed around the country – according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Iraq, 33 of these were Iraqi.
However on Jan. 28 the Arab League mission decided to suspend its activities in Syria, due to rising violence there. The mission had already been accused of being ineffective and after Gulf Arab states decided to withdraw their team members, the effort was suspended.
Despite the current cessation of activities, controversy around what the Iraqi members of the observation effort were doing still continues.
Up until now, the names of the Iraqi observation team have not been revealed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs doesn’t know the members’ names or qualifications.
All that Iraq’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Labeed Abbawi, would reveal was that:”we chose a number of army officers with military experience, some civilians with experience in human rights work as well as diplomats who work in the field of human rights”.
NIQASH has learned that those who know of the Iraqi observers’ work described less-than-impartial behaviour. “The observers told the [Syrian] protestors that there are infiltrators and armed men among them who are trying to create a rupture in Syrian society,” Hamid al-Hayes, a tribal leader in the Anbar province, which borders on Syria, told NIQASH; al-Hayes confirmed that he knew one of the observers personally and that this person told him around ten days ago that some of the Iraqi observers were encouraging protestors to give up their demonstrations against the regime.
Other evidence for this exists in the form of an amateur video posted on YouTube. The video shows some of the Arab League observers telling protestors that: “there are some evil people among you … as well as those who have infiltrated your group and who are trying to sabotage and distort your reputation”. Judging by the dialect, it seems those commenting were members of the Iraqi contingent.
Some organisations in Syria have joined in, in questioning the integrity of Iraq’s contribution to the Arab league’s monitoring mission, saying that their credibility is under threat because they are all members of the one political party, which is dominated by Shiite Muslim interests. Although al-Assad belongs to a smaller sect known as the Alawites, who dominate Syria’s political and power landscape, they are actually also Shiite Muslims.
“We have serious doubts about the credibility of the Iraqi team,” a statement issued earlier in 2012 by the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights, which is based in Damascus, said. “We were told by reliable Iraqi sources that the Iraqi team members are all officials who work for the [Iraqi] Prime Minister’s office and that they are all Shiite Muslims. Assigning people who take their orders directly from al-Maliki is a direct threat to the [Arab League] mission’s credibility,” the League concluded.
While admitting that the observers were members of the Prime Minister’s political party, the Iraqi government itself denied these accusations of bias, calling them politically motivated and an attempt to make it appear as though the Iraqi government, headed by al-Maliki, was hostile to democracy.
“It is all lies,” Ali al-Musawi, media adviser to the Prime Minister, told NIQASH. “It is just other political parties that are supporting these allegations. The performance of the Iraqi observers can only be assessed by the Arab League itself. And the Arab League was happy with their work and praised them.”
This was despite the difficult situation in Syria, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry added.
“I think they did their job and achieved relatively positive results,” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbawi said. “They monitored acts of repression and murder by the supporters of the [Syrian] regime and its forces. And they also recorded militant attacks by individuals and groups. If we take into consideration the extremely difficult and complicated conditions, the very limited capacities and the dangerous environment, we would say that observers have done a good job in a relatively short period of time.”
MP Ala al-Talabani, a member of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, told NIQASH that the committee had been made aware of the accusations against the Iraqi observers and that they had also watched the relevant YouTube video.
“We heard rumours that the Iraqi observers actually supported the Syrian regime but we have no official information about this,” she said. “But if the rumours are true, it would mean that the observers were not neutral. This is something that will impact our position within the Arab League.”
“We have asked the government to provide us with the names of the observers and their political affiliations,” al-Talabani continued. “We’re still waiting for this information. And until we receive it, we can’t really give any opinion on the subject.”
Politicians from the opposition Iraqiya party obviously have their own opinions on the situation, saying that evidence like the YouTube video damages Iraq’s diplomatic reputation.
“All governments should side with the popular will, especially in a land where citizens feel that they are deprived of their right to live a free and dignified life,” Mohammed Salman, an Iraqiya MP, wrote in a statement to NIQASH. The Iraqi government should support the people of Syria, Salman noted.
If Iraq was supporting authoritarian rule – as some of its Arab neighbours did when Iraq was under former leader Saddam Hussein - it would be the wrong thing to do, Iraqi political analyst Abdul Sattar al-Shammari explained.
“At the time we blamed those other nations because they stood against the will of the Iraqi people to end the dictatorship. Now we’re doing the same: we are fighting against the people [in Syria] who are demanding democracy for themselves.”