The decision by the League of Arab States (the Arab League) to threaten Syria with suspension and possible sanctions if President Bashar al-Assad does not stop his regime's violence against protesters is not all that it might seem to be. The League has long been seen by tens of millions of people throughout West Asia and North Africa as toothless and a puppet of the despots, dictators, and absolute monarchs who comprise the majority of its governments. This time 18 of the 22 members voted for the proposal at an emergency meeting in Cairo, with three — Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon — voting against and Iraq abstaining. The immediate cause of the vote is the failure by Damascus to abide by its own November 2 assent to an earlier League plan to end the violence, which the United Nations estimates has caused more than 3,500 deaths since the protests began in March. At first sight, it looks as though the League is at last addressing serious issues; earlier in the week, its Secretary-General, Nabil al-Araby, met a delegation from the opposition Syrian National Co-ordination Committee (SNCC).

Closer examination, however, reveals covert non-military intervention in Syria. To start with, other opposition groups, such as the Syrian National Council, were not received by Mr. al-Araby; quite apart from such bodies' suspicions that their rivals, the SNCC, are Assad stooges, a transitional council created by outside powers is very likely to fail. Secondly, some League members have their own agenda. Qatar, which supported Nato-backed regime change in Libya, led the League's move against Mr. Assad, and — with France and Turkey — has been involved in aggregating Syrian opposition groups. Saudi Arabia, which is extremely hostile to Iranian influence in Syria and to democracy in the region, advocates encouraging Sunni Islamist forces, and this would also marginalise moderate Syrian Sunnis. This suits Nato members very well. Those western powers whose leaders, facing severe domestic problems and needing some high-profile foreign adventurism, suborned the U.N. Security Council into voting for the violent and destructive intervention against Muammar al-Qadhafi know that Russia and China will rightly veto any such resolution on Syria; but now the West can look uninvolved and can expect little criticism for its silence over continuing state brutality in Bahrain and Yemen. Interestingly, the democratic Syrian opposition is strongly against external intervention, fearing that it will cause civil war. But the Arab League is colluding with western double standards to betray the very democracy the Syrian people deserve as of right.

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