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.