Tens of thousands of pro-regime demonstrators flooded the main square in Damascus on Saturday to protest the decision by the Arab League to suspend Syria’s membership in that body. During the staged demonstrations, several Arab embassies were attacked and vandalized while the Turkish government sent planes to evacuate non-essential personnel when their consulates were also besieged by protesters. Turkey is also contemplating stiff sanctions against Syria, a move that would almost totally isolate Assad from the rest of the region.
Syria threatened to “punish” the League for the membership suspension, but offered an olive branch by asking for an emergency meeting with member states and agreeing that foreign observers could monitor compliance with the peace deal that was agreed to earlier this month. That deal stipulated that Syria would withdraw its armed forces from the cities, release political prisoners, and meet with opposition leaders. The League also called a meeting of all Syrian opposition leaders, asking “all Syrian opposition parties to a meeting at the Arab League headquarters to agree to a unified vision for the transitional period,” said Sheikh Hamad, who is also foreign minister of Qatar and currently holds the organization’s rotating chairmanship.
The mention of a “transitional period” in Syria would strongly suggest that unless Assad agrees to reforms, further action would be forthcoming from the League, including the possibility that the organization would ask the UN to intervene. “If the violence and killing doesn’t stop, the secretary-general will call on international organizations dealing with human rights, including the United Nations,” said Hamad.
In addition to the suspension, the League also requested that member states recall their ambassadors and suggested that further sanctions would be imposed unless the Syrian government met the terms of the peace deal.
With Syria’s non-compliance, the League voted only for the third time in its history to suspend a member state. Egypt’s 10 year suspension for signing the peace treaty with Israel and Libya’s sanctioning for murdering its own citizens are the only other incidences of similar League action.
Meanwhile, human rights monitors in London report that 14 more civilians were killed by government forces on Sunday in a clear indication that Assad has no intention of abiding by the terms of the peace deal. Over 100 civilians have died since Assad agreed to the Arab League terms. The crackdown continues despite protests that are still growing, and deserters from the army that are beginning to make their presence felt as an opposition force.
“You Arab leaders are the tails of Obama,” read a banner unfurled during the Damascus protest. Indeed, that has been the government line since the suspension was announced late last week. The Al-Thawra (revolution) newspaper was quoted as saying that the suspension and withdrawal of ambassadors was “almost identical to and a copy of U.S. instructions.” Al-Watan referred to the Arab League as the “Hebrew League” while the official news agency SANA quoted a prominent politician who said the suspension was tantamount to “declaring war” against Syria.
It is widely believed that Assad has called for the emergency Arab summit to stall for time – a luxury he no longer has. The only three member states to vote against Syria’s suspension were Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, all for varying reasons. Iraq fears a Sunni enemy on its borders if Assad is overthrown or otherwise departs. Yemen, suffering through its own version of the “Arab Spring,” fears similar action by the Arab League against President Saleh who, despite promising four times to leave office, hangs on to power while his country falls into civil war. And Lebanon has become a puppet of Syria since Hezbollah took over the government last spring.
But what must worry Assad the most is the loss of his good friend and ally, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey. Turkey has been slow off the mark in punishing Assad for the brutal crackdown but Erdogan has finally come to the conclusion that Assad has to go. Erdogan had promised sanctions last month but events intervened to prevent their announcement – including an attack on Kurdish terrorists in Iraq and a devastating earthquake that demanded his attention.
But the Wall Street Journal reports that even though Erdogan has been cautious in moving toward full opposition to the Assad regime, Turkey now sees Assad as an impediment to its hegemonistic designs in the Middle East. The newspaper quotes Ilter Turan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, who said, ”As long as Assad is there, the road for Iran to extend its influence through the Middle East and the Mediterranean is open.” With both nations vying for power and influence in the region, knocking his former friend off his throne would mean that any new regime in Syria would almost certainly be less friendly to Tehran.
Three quarters of the Syrian population is Sunni Muslim and it is thought that even a pluralistic, secular government as a successor to Assad would pull back from aligning itself too closely with Shia Iran. The chances of that kind of government emerging from post-Assad Syria are exceedingly slim, however. Nowhere else in the Arab world has the “Arab Spring” led to any government except an Islamist one. And just recently, the Syrian opposition hosted Muslim Brotherhood cleric Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi in Qatar. Allowing the resurrection of the Muslim Brotherhood – nearly destroyed by Assad’s father Hafez in a series of brutal massacres during the 1980s – is a dangerous sign for the mostly idealistic secularists on the Syrian National Council.
But even with the opposition making tentative strides in planning for a post-Assad Syria, civilians are still targets for Assad’s security forces – including the dreaded Shabiha militia. The black clad thugs are often in the front ranks of assaults by the army on protestors, firing into crowds, beating the wounded, and shooting soldiers who refuse orders to slaughter unarmed demonstrators. They also conduct brutal house-to-house searches in suspected disloyal neighborhoods, arresting men and boys indiscriminately while helping themselves to household goods. The Shabiha also search local hospitals and drag wounded protesters to secret detention centers – even if their wounds are too severe to allow them to be moved. This has caused activists to set up makeshift hospitals in safe houses to treat those with gunshot wounds.
Can Assad afford to halt his crackdown even if it means more sanctions and possible UN intervention? Even if he personally desired to stop the killing, the regime’s elite, made up almost entirely of members of Islam’s Alawite sect, would almost certainly launch a rebellion of their own. The vast majority of wealth and power is currently held by the Alawites – who comprise just 7% of the population – and they would almost certainly lose their privileges if Assad were to give in and allow a multi-party democratic state.
So for the foreseeable future, Assad has little choice but to continue on the course he has chosen. No matter how isolated he and his country become, the killing will go on until a greater power than the dictator currently wields either forces reforms or, more likely, forces him out.
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