Syrian President Bashar Assad has requested that the general secretary of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, delay a planned visit to Damascus to discuss a “peace plan” being promoted by the group. Syrian officials have been highly critical of the plan, the outline of which includes requiring Assad to live up to his promises of political reform made over the last five months. Elsewhere in Syria, tanks are besieging the city of Homs, as residents and activists report the deaths of 13 civilians on Monday, including a 15-year-old boy shot at a checkpoint.
In New Zealand, UN chief Ban Ki Moon hinted that concerted action by the international community might be necessary to stop the slaughter.
Despite the Red Cross finally being allowed to visit some detainees held in an Interior Ministry prison outside of Damascus, there appears to be a disconnect between the brutal actions of the Syrian government, and the efforts by the Arab League and Red Cross to deal with the crackdown. In statements made by the representative of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, it appears that the pacifist organization is unable to grasp the enormity of the crimes against humanity being committed by Assad and his generals.
After expressing the hope that the Red Cross would be able to visit other prisoners being detained by the regime, Kellenberger said of the ICRC’s visit, “This is an important step forward for our humanitarian activities in Syria.” He also met with President Assad and discussed “the rules governing the use of force by security forces in the current situation and the obligation to respect the physical and psychological well-being and human dignity of detainees.”
For five months Assad has been using tanks against civilians and the Red Cross bureaucrat is lecturing Assad about “rules” and “obligations?”
Nobody has any idea how many Syrian civilians have been detained so far. Human rights groups put the number of detainees in the “tens of thousands.” Desperate families have no idea where their loved ones are being held, or even if they are still alive. Those few who have been released have told stories of torture and murder in the prisons. Amnesty International recently released a report detailing the deaths of 88 civilians who were detained by the army. Fifty-two of the bodies showed signs of torture. Amnesty International researcher Neil Sammonds said, “The accounts of torture we have received are horrific.” He added, “We believe the Syrian government to be systematically persecuting its own people on a vast scale.”
Meanwhile, the plan created by the Arab League is completely unacceptable to the protestors, never mind it being heavily criticized by the Syrian government. According to AFP, the document asks Assad to hold elections within three years, move toward a pluralistic government, and immediately halt the crackdown. SG al-Arabi said it was necessary “to carry a clear message to the Syrian authorities about the situation in Syria and the need to stop the violence and launch immediate reforms.” The League’s proposal also includes a requirement that most of their own governments don’t even follow: Assad must “separate the military from political and civil life.”
What makes this statement so surreal – and the effort behind it – is that opposition to the Assad regime has moved far beyond these paltry efforts to “reform” the political process. The protestors want Assad gone one way or another. One activist expressed the hope that the army would take the initiative and overthrow the dictator. “We think the army will one day make a coup. It would make the situation much easier,” he said. So far, that seems a forlorn hope. And the prospect of allowing Assad to serve another three years waiting for elections is a total non-starter with the opposition. In short, most elements in the plan are not based on the reality of what is happening in the streets.
The Arab League’s plan is not only unacceptable to the opposition, the Syrian government has all but rejected it out of hand. Hence, the request that SG al-Arabi cool his heels in Egypt and wait for a more propitious time to make his pitch. The semi-official Syrian news agency SANA reports that Damascus told al-Arabi, that the delay was necessary “due to circumstances beyond our control.” The agency added, “He [al-Arabi] has been informed of those circumstances and a new date will be set for his visit.”
Given the vagueness of the Syrian government’s statement about when that might be, one could assume that an invitation will be a long time coming.
With the Arab League floundering in fantasy, the United Nations will need to go far beyond the sanctions already imposed by the EU and America to punish the Assad regime and force an end to the crackdown. Speaking at a meeting of Pacific leaders, Ban Ki Moon stopped short of calling for military intervention, but urged “coherent measures” by the world community to address the situation. He urged President Assad to take “immediate and bold and decisive measures before it’s too late.” Later, the UN chief corrected his statement, saying, “It’s already too late, in fact. It’s already too late. If it takes more and more days, then more people will be killed.”
The US and the European Union want to urge the UN Security Council to extend the sanctions by adding a travel ban and asset freeze on Assad and 20 of his top associates. Currently, the EU has slapped an embargo on Syrian oil and the US has issued its own asset freeze and travel bans on Assad and members of his inner circle.
But Russia and China are blocking any additional sanctions in the Security Council, refusing even to discuss the matter. And Brazil, India, and South Africa have also questioned the use of sanctions, but have agreed to meet with the US and the EU to discuss what the Washington Post calls “a more diluted council resolution.” Said one Western diplomat, “We’ve decided to put the sanctions to the side.”
There have been questions raised about arming the opposition, but most diplomats believe that would only play into Assad’s hands. The dictator has been saying for months that the opposition is made up of armed gangs and terrorists. This drew an acerbic response from US Ambassador Robert Ford, who said on the embassy’s Facebook page, “No one in the international community accepts the justification from the Syrian government that those security service members’ deaths justify the daily killings, beatings, extrajudicial detentions, torture and harassment of unarmed civilian protestors.”
But there may be little choice for the protestors who face the guns of the Syrian army. One Homs demonstrator said, “The situation is unbearable. You cannot watch the other side just killing you, killing your family, killing your children. But we are concerned about the consequences of taking up arms.”
It’s hard to imagine consequences that would make things much worse in Homs. “The city is completely besieged. When I go to the balcony, I can see the snipers on the tall building in front of me,” said one resident. In addition to the young boy gunned down at a checkpoint, five other bodies were discovered in what might have been sectarian retaliation. Assad has been deliberately trying to split the opposition along religious lines and the deaths in Homs may be related to that effort.
The regime has also intensified its round-ups of protest leaders, with more than 200 arrested in Homs alone in the last 24 hours. Other arrests took place in Latakia, Deir al-Zour, Daraa and Hama. If there is one thing that has been shown in other Arab countries during the uprisings, it’s that arresting protest leaders does nothing to halt the demonstrations, as others in the movement will step forward to take their place. The Syrian opposition is prepared for these eventualities and has proven itself quite resilient in maintaining a tremendous presence in the streets, with protests growing rather than getting smaller despite the arrests.
With the Arab League initiative dead in the water, and the UN Security Council refusing to act, international pressure on Assad to stop the slaughter appears stuck in neutral. The sanctions already in place will hurt, but it will take time for the full effect of the oil ban to be felt. Meanwhile, the army shows little sign of cracking and support for the regime from the business and merchant classes looks solid – for the moment. Assad may bring the Syrian economy crashing down around his head, and sectarian violence is always a shadow in the background waiting to emerge. But until men with guns finally challenge his authority, Assad will continue to hang on to power with all the brutally effective means at his disposal.
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