By: Osama Al Sharif
November 17, 2011
Can the regime of President Bashar Assad salvage itself before it is too late? This is perhaps the number one question today following the surprise suspension by the Arab League of Syria’s membership and the promise by its Secretary-General, Nabil Al-Arabi, to ask for UN help to provide mechanisms to protect civilians.
We’ve been through this path before with Libya. The suspension of Tripoli’s membership in the Arab League earlier this year was the harbinger of foreign military intervention and the internationalisation of the conflict. It ended badly for Muammar Gaddafi and his clique. It also set a precedent for the pan-Arab organization, which has been lambasted by Damascus for being in breach of its charter.
The Arab League has accused the Syrian regime of failing to honour its commitment to an Arab working plan aimed at defusing the seven-month-old crisis in which more than 4000 people have been killed. Just like in Libya’s case the main force behind Arab intervention in Syria is the protection of civilians. Despite earlier promises Damascus has failed to pull out the army from cities and towns. In fact the city of Homs has witnessed intense bombardment during the Eid Al-Adha holiday; few days after Syria accepted the Arab peace plan.
Following the Arab League’s decision thousands of pro-government protesters took to the streets in Damascus, Latakia, Aleppo and others in support of the regime. Foreign missions were attacked triggering a diplomatic standoff.
But then there was another surprise, this time from Damascus. It called for an emergency Arab summit to be held in a bid to avert its suspension decision and circumvent foreign intervention. On Monday its Foreign Minister Walid Muallem described the Arab League’s move as dangerous and illegitimate. He said that decision was pre-planned and accused the United States of incitement.
Few Arabs would want to see a repeat of the Libyan scenario. Damascus is counting on the support of both Russia and China to veto any resolution that would sanction the use of force in Syria. But other than rhetoric the Syrian regime has offered little in return. It had many chances to defuse the crisis and launch a series of political and economic reforms. But on the ground it was obvious that the regime had chosen to pursue a military option to dispel the protests.
Muallem may be right in describing the suspension of his country’s membership as “illegitimate”. Such decisions must be adopted through consensus. Not all 22 Arab member states supported the vote. Syria is accusing some Arab countries, namely Qatar, of incitement and of fulfilling an American agenda in the region. But all this does not exonerate Assad’s regime from the crime of killing thousands of Syrians and perpetuating a reign of terror.
But time is running out and it may be too late for Damascus to change its course at this stage. Even if it implements the Arab plan now by withdrawing the army and releasing prisoners, the search for a political way out may prove futile. The opposition is demanding Assad’s ouster and some are calling for his execution. With his back against the wall, President Assad is more likely to choose to fight and escalate repression against protesters.
Such inclination will add pressure on the Arab League, now that it has decided to challenge the Syrian regime, and will certainly increase the possibility of outside intervention. Brinkmanship will not help President Assad especially that the military option has so far failed to quell the protests. It is also a matter of time before Moscow and Beijing decide to soften their positions. They have already called on Assad to adopt reforms. Realistically the Assad regime is near its end: It can surrender peacefully and allow for a political transition to take place, or it can opt to resist and sink the country in more bloodshed. It would be better for President Assad and for all Syrians if he adopts the former path.
In an interview with the BBC this week Jordan’s King Abdallah called on President Bashar to step down. But he warned that there is no one in Syria who could step in to change the status quo. “If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life,” he said. It is not expected that the Syrian president will heed such advice. He has failed to learn from the lessons of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Like Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh, he is holding on to power at the expense of the integrity and safety of his country.
It is ironic that President Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, could have taken his country along a different path. At one point in his rule he promised change and reforms. Whether the old party guards got the better of him, or that he never really believed in change is of little consequence today.
The Arab Spring has changed the geopolitical realties of the entire region. Syria is in a state of transition and President Assad holds the key to the future, but only ephemerally. To believe that his military and mercenaries can stem the tide of popular protests and take the country back to the old days of oligarchic one-party rule is both naïve and dangerous.
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
Source: Arab News