All signs are pointing to the end of the line for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. The overwhelming majority of Arab states now openly oppose the Syrian leader, and even Iran, the Assads’ greatest regional benefactor, is now hedging its bets.
Recognizing the writing on the wall when the 22-member Arab League voted overwhelmingly to suspend its membership, Syria appealed for one last chance to work with the league and avoid threatened economic sanctions.
The league’s Nov. 2 proposal had called on Damascus to end the killing of protesters, withdraw its armoured forces from the streets and talk to the opposition. Far from ending the killing, however, an average of about 20 people a day have been slain since Syria said it accepted the proposal.
Despite Saturday’s 18-3 vote against Syria, the league quickly agreed Sunday to the al-Assad request and a special session of league foreign ministers is to be held in Rabat on Wednesday, the same day Syria’s suspension is to begin.
To Syrian opposition figures such as Khalid Saleh of the Syrian National Council, these developments show that Syria is running scared and that the Arab League is behaving in a very reasonable way.
“They want to make sure this situation is handled by Arabs without outside intervention,” said the U.S.-based Mr. Saleh, a board member of the Syrian American Council.
It was the Arab League’s decision to suspend Libya’s membership in February that led to UN Security Council backing for a NATO air campaign that helped overthrow Moammar Gadhafi.
Sunday’s diplomatic developments came as tens of thousands of people took to Syrian streets in support of the Assad regime, and just hours after mobs of Syrians attacked the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Arab states that led the league initiative against Syria. Turkish missions also were attacked. Though not an Arab state, Turkey has encouraged such punitive steps and has befriended elements of the Syrian opposition.
“We sacrifice our blood and our soul for you, Bashar,” the crowds shouted Sunday.
“They’re freaking out,” said Mr. Saleh, an investment counsellor, noting that Syrian media had vowed on Saturday that Damascus would take revenge against every Arab state that had turned against it. Even Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, would not be safe, the imprudent government-controlled television warned.
Saturday’s lopsided vote is not likely to be reversed. The only countries backing Syria were Lebanon, a semi-subservient neighbour, and Yemen, whose embattled President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, wants to avoid a similar fate.
Interestingly, Iraq chose not to support Syria, and abstained from voting Saturday. Considering that Iraq tends to vote in line with Iran’s thinking, the abstention suggests Iran too may be losing faith in its ally Mr. al-Assad.
“They’re smart politicians,” Mr. Saleh said of the Iranian leadership. “They’re sending a signal that they’re not going to put up a fight to protect Assad.”
To that end, it’s also noteworthy that Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants, dependant on Iran for their arms, have done little to help the regime in Damascus.
The recently formed Syrian National Council, representative of several but not all Syrian constituencies, is buoyed by this weekend’s events.
“This gives strong legitimacy to our cause,” SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani said, referring to the Arab League vote to suspend Syria. “We consider this decision to be a victory for the Syrian revolution,”
Will the SNC also accept the Arab League initiative that calls for talks between the regime and the opposition? “The only talks we’re prepared to have with the regime is to discuss details of its handing over power,” Mr. Saleh said, repeating the SNC mantra.
While all this has been unfolding over recent months, and much of the country has been torn by violence, the Kurdish population in the north and northeast has remained quiet. It is said that the Kurds, about 10 per cent of the population, are organizing themselves politically, preparing to participate in a new administration just as soon as the Assad regime is felled.
The Kurds, who share goals of regional autonomy with fellow Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, are leery of Syria’s Sunni Arab-dominated opposition, fearing it may treat the non-Arab Kurds even worse than did the Assads.