Syrian Uprising: Arab League acts on Damascus

Syn­op­sis
The Arab League has moved towards action to halt the bru­tal crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers in Syr­ia. It has tak­en deci­sions to lay the ground for Unit­ed Nations action against the Assad regime and strength­en calls for inter­na­tion­al inter­ven­tion to stop the blood­shed.

Com­men­tary

ARAB LEAGUE for­eign min­is­ters have giv­en Syr­i­an pres­i­dent Bashar Al-Assad a three-day win­dow to halt the bru­tal crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers, fail­ing which they will take the mat­ter to the Unit­ed Nations. The League’s moves aim to pre­vent Syr­ia slid­ing into civ­il war fol­low­ing increased fight­ing between the Syr­i­an armed forces and sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of mil­i­tary defec­tors, as well as mount­ing sec­tar­i­an vio­lence. The gov­ern­ment crack­down has incurred 3,500 dead and thou­sands more wound­ed among the pro­test­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the city of Homs, a focal point of the eight-month old revolt against the Assad regime.

The League’s sus­pen­sion of Syr­i­an mem­ber­ship and deci­sion to con­sult with the UN sig­nal to the embat­tled Syr­i­an leader that time is run­ning out for his regime. It also puts on notice oppo­nents of UN sanc­tions against Syr­ia, par­tic­u­lar­ly UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil mem­bers Rus­sia, Chi­na, India, Brazil and South Africa, that their refusal to back West­ern efforts to tight­en the screws on the Syr­i­an regime can no longer count on region­al sup­port for Assad to resolve the cri­sis with brute force. That is an attempt that has so far failed in the face of the pro­test­ers’ remark­able resilience and which the Arab League’s moves will make more dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble, for world and region­al pow­ers to tol­er­ate.

Civ­il war looms large

Region­al­ly, increased Arab League pres­sure and will­ing­ness to take the issue to the UN on human­i­tar­i­an grounds can weak­en Iran’s uncon­di­tion­al sup­port for Assad, Iran’s fore­most Arab ally. It strength­ens those in Iran who believe that such sup­port has increased the Islam­ic republic’s iso­la­tion from the region and pre­vent­ed it from being part of a region­al or inter­na­tion­al solu­tion, notwith­stand­ing recent Iran­ian calls for a halt to the blood­shed.

The spec­tre of a civ­il war in Syr­ia with poten­tial fall­out in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries increas­es pres­sure on oppo­nents of inter­na­tion­al efforts to achieve a halt to the Syr­i­an crack­down. It also will strength­en calls for and add pres­sure on the Unit­ed States and Europe to con­sid­er mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion despite their reluc­tance and dis­trac­tion with their eco­nom­ic woes. To be sure, the Arab League explic­it­ly ruled out inter­na­tion­al mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Syr­ia.

Mean­while, Syr­i­an asser­tions that the regime is con­fronting an armed rebel­lion rather than peace­ful anti-gov­ern­ment protests are becom­ing a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy. They are said to have the covert sup­port of Sau­di fund­ing for arms pur­chas­es in Lebanon and Turkey and tac­it Turk­ish sup­port for the Free Syr­i­an Army made up of Syr­i­an mil­i­tary defec­tors that is encamped on the Turk­ish side of the Syr­i­an bor­der.

The sense of Syr­ia tee­ter­ing on the brink of civ­il war is height­ened by mount­ing signs of sec­tar­i­an vio­lence par­tic­u­lar­ly in Homs, a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Sun­ni Mus­lim city with a sig­nif­i­cant minor­i­ty of Chris­tians and Alaw­ites, who have sup­port­ed Assad. The bat­tle lines in Homs between pro­test­ers and Assad’s forces are believed to have been blurred by the tar­get­ing of peo­ple accused of assist­ing the regime as well as its mil­i­tary and mili­tias. Some 100 peo­ple have report­ed­ly been killed in Homs in recent tit-for-tat inter-com­mu­nal killings.

By increas­ing pres­sure on Assad, the Arab League is also push­ing Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion forces to get their act togeth­er. The invi­ta­tion to Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion groups to meet with the League in Cairo con­sti­tutes an effort to force them to form a uni­fied front. The absence of such a front has in some ways helped Assad because of the lack of a clear oppo­si­tion lead­er­ship and uncer­tain­ty about who might come to pow­er if Assad were dri­ven from office.

Sanc­tions start to bite

Final­ly, the League’s threat to impose sanc­tions if Assad fails to halt the crack­down with­in the three-day time­line sig­nif­i­cant­ly tight­ens the screws just when West­ern eco­nom­ic sanc­tions are being felt in Syr­ia with the threat of a freeze on Arab invest­ments and on assets of Assad asso­ciates in the Gulf. It would fur­ther make it dif­fi­cult for coun­tries like Rus­sia, Chi­na and India to ignore West­ern and reject UN sanc­tions and con­tin­ue to con­duct busi­ness as usu­al with Syr­ia.

Oil majors Shell and Total have reduced oil pro­duc­tion in Syr­ia because of the sanc­tions and in an indi­ca­tion of fis­cal con­straints Syr­ia has stopped pay­ing the two com­pa­nies. Arab League sanc­tions increase the like­li­hood that the Euro­pean Union will expand its sanc­tion regime by mak­ing it ille­gal for inter­na­tion­al firms to main­tain oil and gas invest­ments in Syr­ia. This would not only affect Shell and Total but also Canada’s Sun­cor Ener­gy, Britain’s Petro­fac, India’s Oil and Nat­ur­al Gas Corp and the Chi­na Nation­al Petro­le­um Cor­po­ra­tion (CNPC).

Nonethe­less, despite the Arab League’s deci­sion to final­ly put Assad on the mat and sub­stan­tial­ly increase pres­sure on him, there seems no imme­di­ate solu­tion that will halt the blood­shed and help bring Syr­ia back from the brink. Assad has paint­ed him­self into a cor­ner with the bru­tal­i­ty of his crack­down and fail­ure to live up to his own promis­es, and many in the oppo­si­tion are unwill­ing to con­sid­er an exit that would keep him in office. He has giv­en no indi­ca­tion of being will­ing to leave and has warned that the fall­out of inter­ven­tion to remove him would shake the region to its core.

That could also be true if full-fledged civ­il war erupts, which seems inevitable if the crack­down con­tin­ues and prob­a­bly even if it is halt­ed but Assad remains in office. The only solu­tion is Assad’s depar­ture; the ques­tion is at what cost that will be achieved in terms of Syr­i­an lives and region­al sta­bil­i­ty.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.