I don't need to sugar coat this: there are a lot of people who have no faith in the Arab League mission in Syria. For starters, we already know what they will find. International observers, though limited in both numbers and opportunities to investigate independently, have given us conclusions. According to US Ambassador Robert Ford, or the UN delegation that visited in August, or the few reporters brave enough to smuggle themselves into Syria, President Assad is killing a lot of people and torturing many. And there is only one way to end this mess, with Assad giving up power.
Few of these facts are in question. Much of the counter-narrative provided by the Syrian regime has either been proven false or is a weak defense --- "some individuals are guilty of crimes" --- for the scale of the regime's carnage. If only half the claims of the activists are true, then the number of people who have died from violence in Syria this year is four times greater than in Egypt.
So why are there observers present, who are they, what will they see, and what will they do about it? Let's work backwards.
The Arab League could easily claim that the Syrian regime is cooperating, that more incentives need to be given, that more diplomatic steps should be taken.... In other words, the Arab League could do little to end the crisis in Syria. This would embolden the regime, as anything short of an outright condemnation of the crisis will serve as proof that President Assad is safe from international intervention (more on this later).
On the other hand, the Arab League could respond to any potential report as a justification for involvement, using this collection of evidence as the preparation for steps which have already been determined.
The mission is only a day old and the observers already have seen tanks in the Baba Amr section in Homs. They have seen shell casings littering the city, filled with blood and trash, and gunfire being used against unseen targets (presumably activists trying to reach the observers). The few activists who have spoken to the observers seem to tell a unified tale of a brutal attack on civilians by Assad loyalists and the Syrian military.
At the last count, 42 people died yesterday alone, according to the opposition, 17 of them perished in Homs, most of them killed while the observers were somewhere in the city.
In other words, there is already evidence that the Arab League observers have witnessed some very bad things, provided their movements were not blocked by the Syrian authorities.
Were they restricted? Not according to the head of the observer team:
Adnan Khedair, who heads the mission's operation room at league headquarters in Cairo, said about a dozen observers took part in the trip to Homs and met with the provincial governor. Syrian authorities did not interfere with their work, he said.
So we get to the most important questions: who are the observers, and why were they sent? It is perhaps too early to judge. However, there are already serious concerns.
Three "What is EA Reading?" stories are the basis for the worries. The first, written by David Kenner of Foreign Policy Magazine, offers a conclusion in its title: "The World's Worst Human Rights Observer".
For the first time in Syria's nine-month-old uprising, there are witnesses to President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown, which according to the United Nations has claimed more than 5,000 lives. Arab League observers arrived in the country on Dec. 26, and traveled to the city of Homs -- the epicenter of the revolt, where the daily death toll regularly runs into the dozens, according to activist groups -- on Dec. 27. Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against Assad upon the observers' arrival, while activists said Syrian tanks withdrew from the streets only hours before the Arab League team entered the city.
"I am going to Homs," insisted Sudanese Gen. Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the Arab League observer mission, telling reporters that so far the Assad regime had been "very cooperative."
But 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.
The Wall Street Journal focuses on one man who is risking his life to report the number of people killed in recent attacks by the Syrian regime. This is a small window into how EA, and the rest of the world, learn about what happens in Syria:
On Wednesday, after villages in northern Syria's Jabal Zawiya region came under what residents say was a hail of government tank, antiaircraft and machine-gun fire, Alaadine al-Yousef telephoned in his latest death toll.
Some 105 people were killed the previous day in villages in the region, he told an activist group and cable network by satellite phone. As he has done before in documenting the killings in Syria's uprising, he based his count on bodies he had seen and reports from other activists.
What he didn't mention in that dispatch was that the bodies he viewed, 35 in all, were in the mosque of his own village. Some were piled atop of each other. All were familiar.
"They are the dearest friends to me. They are all I know," he said in an interview Wednesday, via Skype, over a satellite connection.
But perhaps the most desperate article is the story of Homs, told by Der Speigel, before the invasion of regime military last Friday night. While the details match what EA has been reporting all along, they are illuminated by the words of the activists, the residents, and the defectors, who are literally dying in order to find food.
Now we know who is observing, and now we know what they should see if they keep their eyes open. There is only one remaining question....
After the observers come home, what is the Arab League, and the rest of the world, going to do?