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.
Dabi’s involvement in Darfur began in 1999, four years before the region would explode in the violence that Secretary of State Colin Powell labeled as “genocide.” Darfur was descending into war between the Arab and Masalit communities — the same fault line that would widen into a bloodier interethnic war in a few years’ time. As the situation escalated out of control, Bashir sent Dabi to Darfur to restore order.
According to Julie Flint and Alex De Waal’s Darfur: A New History of a Long War, Dabi arrived in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, on Feb. 9, 1999, with two helicopter gunships and 120 soldiers. He would stay until the end of June. During this time, he would make an enemy of the Masalit governor of West Sudan. Flint and De Waal write:
Governor Ibrahim Yahya describes the period as ‘the beginning of the organization of the Janjawiid‘, with [Arab] militia leaders like Hamid Dawai and Shineibat receiving money from the government for the first time. ‘The army would search and disarm villages, and two days later the Janjawiid would go in.They would attack and loot from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., only ten minutes away from the army. By this process all of Dar Masalit was burned.’
Yahya’s account was supported five years later by a commander of the Sudan Liberation Army, a rebel organization movement in the region. “[T]hings changed in 1999,” he told Flint and De Waal. “The PDF [Popular Defense Forces, a government militia] ended and the Janjawiid came; the Janjawiid occupied all PDF places.”
Dabi provided a different perspective on his time in Darfur, but it’s not clear that he disagrees on the particulars of how he quelled the violence. He told Flint and De Waal that he provided resources to resolve the tribes’ grievances, and employed a firm hand to force the leaders to reconcile — “threatening them with live ammunition when they dragged their feet,” in the authors’ words. “I was very proud of the time I spent in Geneina,” Dabi said.
De Waal told FP that Yahya, who would become a senior commander for the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), had “an axe to grind” against the Sudanese military — but his charge that Dabi spurred the creation of the janjaweed wasn’t far off base.
“[T]he army command finds the militia useful and fearsome in equal measure,” De Waal said. “So al-Dabi’s regularization of the Arab militia served both to rein them in, but also to legitimize their activities and retain them as a future strike force.”
Dabi’s role in Darfur is only one episode in a decades-long career that has been spent protecting the interests of Bashir’s regime. He has regularly been trusted with authority over the regime’s most sensitive portfolios: The day Bashir took power in a coup in 1989, he was promoted to head of military intelligence. In August 1995, after protesters at Khartoum University rattled the regime, Dabi became head of Sudan’s foreign intelligence agency — pushing aside a loyalist of Hassan al-Turabi, the hard-line Islamist cleric who helped Bashir rise to power but would be pushed aside several years later. And as civil war ravaged south Sudan, Dabi was tasked from 1996 to 1999 as chief of Sudan’s military operations.
It is likely, however, Dabi’s more recent career that led to his selection as head of the Arab League observer mission in Syria. He served as Sudan’s ambassador to Qatar from 1999 to 2004, and would return to Doha after his term ended in a Darfur-related position — making him a well-known quantity to the Qatari government, which has taken the lead among Arab states in pressuring Assad’s regime.
In 2006, Dabi was appointed head of the Darfur Security Arrangements Implementation Commission (DSAIC) — according to the peace agreement, De Waal said, a representative of the former rebels was supposed to get the position, but Bashir “simply ignored” that provision to tap Dabi. In this new position, he played a major role in the peace talks, sponsored by Qatar, which resulted in the government and one rebel group signing the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur in July 2011.
While much of Dabi’s activities in recent years have been behind closed doors, his limited media statements show that he remains a Bashir loyalist par excellence. In 2006, he slammed U.N. Special Representative Jan Pronk‘s statement that Sudan had suffered defeats in Darfur as “false and misleading,” according to the Sudanese press, urging Pronk to “steer clear” of military issues and “concentrate on his duties instead.” That same year, his aide suggested there would be a time limit to the African Union troops in Darfur, saying the peacekeepers could “stay until the crisis is over, but not indefinitely.”
Dabi’s checkered past is only one of the criticisms of the observer mission, which human rights activists have criticized for falling far short of its promise to monitor the implementation of an Arab League initiative meant to end Assad’s crackdown. Wissam Tarif, the Arab world coordinator for the human rights group Avaaz, slammed the mission for being far too small — at roughly 50 people — to monitor the situation across Syria, for failing to provide any biographical information about the observers to human rights organizations, and for relying on Assad’s forces to shepherd them around the country. “I helped set up a meeting with activists in Homs, and [the observers] arrived with 10 security officers along with them,” Tarif noted — obviously a huge risk to the protest organizers’ safety.
As monitors arrive in Homs, Syrians will no doubt cheer their arrival at the center of the uprising. But given the stumbles of the Arab League observer mission, it’s clear that Syrians are still very much alone.