Syria's opposition called Thursday for the removal of the Sudanese general heading the Arab League mission sent to monitor the crackdown by the Damascus government because he held key security positions in the regime of President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted on international charges of committing genocide in Darfur.
The controversy swirling around Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi raises troubling questions about whether Arab League member states, with some of the world's poorest human rights records, were fit for the mission to monitor compliance with a plan to end to the crackdown on political opponents by security forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian opposition already has branded the League's mission a farce, citing the ongoing violence against anti-government protesters across the country even as the monitors worked on the ground. Arab League officials said the mandate of the monitors was not to intervene to stop the bloodshed but to observe and report back to the group's secretary general.
The 60 Arab League monitors who began work Tuesday are the first that Syria has allowed in during the nine-month rebellion. They are supposed to be ensuring the regime is complying with terms of the League's plan to end the regime's crackdown. The United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed in the uprising since it began in March.
The plan requires Assad's regime to remove security forces and heavy weapons from city streets, start talks with opposition leaders, free political prisoners and allow human rights workers and journalists into the country.
Syrian opposition groups have been critical of the mission, saying it will give Assad cover for his crackdown.
Amnesty International said al-Dabi led al-Bashir's military intelligence service until August 1995, when he was appointed head of external security. "During the early 1990s, the military intelligence in Sudan was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and torture or other ill-treatment of numerous people in Sudan," it said in a statement.
"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," Amnesty said.
Haytham Manna, a prominent Paris-based dissident, urged the Arab League to replace al-Dabi or reduce his authority.
"We know his history and his shallow experience in the area," he said.
Another opposition activist, Omar Idilbi of the Local Coordination Committees, described al-Dabi as a "senior officer with an oppressive regime that is known to repress opposition," adding that there are fears he might not be neutral.
The conflict in Darfur broke out in 2003, but has tapered off since 2009. The U.N. estimates 300,000 people died and 2.7 million have been displaced in the conflict. Al-Dabi, unlike his mentor al-Bashir, is not formally accused of any crimes in Darfur.
Monitoring compliance with a peace agreement is uncharted territory for the Arab League, which has in its nearly 70-year history routinely passed on dealing with conflict in member nations, arguing that it was up their governments to resolve them. That policy was relaxed earlier this year, but not before the organization earned a reputation over the years for being all talk and no action when it came to Arab dictators paying lip service to democratic values while brutally crushing dissent.
In response to the Arab Spring, the group suspended Libya's membership over Moammar Gadhafi's crackdown on protesters. NATO took the League's withdrawal of support for Gadhafi's regime as the nod to launch airstrikes that crippled forces loyal to the dictator, who was captured and killed in October when he finally fell from power.
But the League's foray into Syria's turmoil is proving trickier than dealing with Libya. Foremost among the intractable issues involved is the choice of the Sudanese general.
"The choice of al-Dabi does not send an encouraging signal to Syria's democrats," said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. "Sudan has many democrats who would have been credible and effective monitors for respect for rights in Syria. General al-Dabi is not one of them."
De Waal, who interviewed al-Dabi for a book on Darfur he co-authored in 2008, said the Sudanese served in 1999 as al-Bashir's representative for western Darfur, where serious fighting had broken out related to intertribal tensions and Darfur's frustration with the Khartoum government.
"Al-Dabi brought the situation under control with a show of force, including stationing military helicopters in the state capital and using them to intimidate the rebels. Many were arrested during his tenure, and thousands of refugees fled to Chad."
The Darfur rebels, according to de Waal, said al-Dabi's time in the area was "the beginning of the organization of the Janjaweed," the name given to pro-government militiamen blamed for many of the atrocities committed against Darfurians.
Al-Dabi argued at the time that it was necessary to show a firm hand in the face of dissent, de Waal said.
"It is striking that although he had retired from the army at that point, al-Dabi insisted he be allowed to wear a military uniform on his mission, on the grounds that this would ensure that he was respected," de Waal said.
The Arab League monitors' mission, according to top Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun, was to ensure that the group's agreement with Damascus is implemented, "stopping the killing and shooting."
Speaking in Cairo after meeting League chief Nabil Elaraby, Ghalioun said Assad's regime was holding more than 100,000 prisoners, with some kept in military barracks and on ships off the Syrian coast. There is danger that they could be killed so they are not found, he warned.
An Arab League official defended the choice of al-Dabi, saying he enjoyed the support of all 22 members.
The monitors' mandate was to observe and report to the League, and not to intervene, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media
"We follow our conscience. The mission and its final report will decide the future of Syria, and this is not a small matter," he said.
Some of al-Dabi's comments during a visit to the flashpoint city of Homs this week also angered the opposition. He said the mission was enjoying the full cooperation of the Syrian government, which has shot and killed dozens of people around the country, mostly unarmed protesters, while the monitors have been working there.
"Why couldn't the head of the mission be from Egypt, Morocco or the Gulf?" asked British-based opposition activist Ausama Monajed, a member of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group. "That his background is military undermines his credibility. Why did not they pick someone who has a legal or rights background?"
He said SNC "is deeply concerned about having Mr. al-Dabi as head of the monitoring mission" and will ask the Arab League to replace him.