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August 16, 2011
As the Syrian government continued its policy of military confrontation against domestic opposition forces, erstwhile allies of the Syrian regime publicly displayed their discomfort with the path chosen by President Bashar Al Assad and his advisers. In a series of public statements, first a few Arab countries, then Turkey, and even Iran to some extent, attempted to nudge the Syrian regime towards a less violent strategy.
It is unclear however, whether even the belated Arab statement led by Saudi Arabia can have any effect. As Jameel Theyabi puts it in an op-ed for Al Hayat, “Certainly, the Gulf statement, despite its importance, will have no impact in light of the Arab frailty, the weakness of its formulation and expressions and the fact that it avoided any direct criticisms against Al-Assad’s regime. However, it might have an impact if it were to be adopted by the Arab League and rendered a starting point and an active nucleus for a joint Arab decision surpassing Western action.”
The reaction by the Saudi regime to the GCC statement has some at Asharq Alwsat wondering whether Damascus is listening at all: “The statement issued by the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] late last week expressing its concern about the killing of civilians in Syria broke the Arab regional silence with regards to the situation in the country....No political position, whether Arab or international, reached the extent of completely closing the door in the face of the Syrian regime. The door remains open [for diplomatic communication], and there is still a glimmer of hope for this, as reflected in the statement issued by the Saudi monarch, in which he specified that there are two courses that the Syrian leadership can take: wisdom or chaos and loss.
The voices raised against Al Assad’s regime in Syria are multiplying by the day however. Aijaz Zaka Syed, a respected commentator in the Arab world, asks on an article in Arab News, “WHEN is enough really enough?...The Arabs stood and stared for five long months before they chose to end their silence this week over Syria....Nevertheless, the belated Arab voices against the endless state carnage against peaceful protesters are welcome and could seriously turn the tide against the hated and totally discredited regime in Damascus.... The Baathist regime is on the wrong side of history and it's about time it is made to realize it….When this season of hope had dawned, Assad had declared: ‘The Arab spring stops in Syria.’ Well, he couldn't be more wrong. The Arab spring will outlast him and his kind and the world will see it.”
An editorial for Khaleej Times expresses despair over the seeming impasse in the current international negotiations with Syria. The situation has become even more dire, since “Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s recent meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad seems not to have made any impact. Any hopes that might have been raised as Davutoglu delivered what is believed to be a stern message from Ankara, have now been snuffed out with Assad having reiterated his resolve to crush ‘terrorist groups.’...The question is that unless Assad’s own inner circle and military stalwarts start abandoning him, he is likely to remain in a deadlock using the state machinery to bleed the opposition….So far, apart from earlier reports of some defections within the army units, there has been no major defection.”
Even the recent sanctions announced by the United States haven’t done much to increase optimism for an early resolution of the conflict, although they might help. As one editorial of The National puts it, “Over the years, the regime won the support of the middle class through economic incentives. Sanctions will hurt them, but there is little indication that groups that have remained silent so far will take to the streets. The regime is becoming weaker, protesters are getting stronger and the opposition, despite its poor performance diplomatically, is becoming better organized. Sanctions alone will not topple the regime, but carefully targeted, they could help.”
One thing has become clear, however. Assad’s actions have forced even some his “former allies into a corner.” Michael Young suggests in an article for The National that “Hama was one massacre too many for Syria's President Bashar Al Assad. In recent days, Turkey, the GCC and the Arab League have condemned Damascus, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain recalling their ambassadors. It didn't need to be that way. Yet Syria's regime, awash in brutality, has not lacked in hubris either....The Hama massacre put the Saudis on the spot. The kingdom could not continue to avert its eyes from what many in the region now view as the repression of a Sunni majority by Syria's Alawite minority. For King Abdullah, such a perception threatened to undermine his unofficial role as paramount Sunni figurehead in the Arab world and champion of the faith.”
In fact, according to some, Iran is already playing its cards in Iraq and Yemen with an eye towards a post-Assad Syria, In an article on Asharq Alawsat, Tariq Al-Homayed asserts, “Information suggests that the Houthis, with the help of Tehran, are arranging their ranks today in preparation for the post-Ali Abdullah Saleh phase….What Tehran is doing today, in Iraq and Yemen, means that Iran is becoming more and more convinced that Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria is coming to an end, and it also means that Iran is preparing to re-engage with Saudi Arabia, by way of Yemen and Iraq, along the lines of a game of chess. Will Tehran succeed in its plan, or will those targeted realize the gravity of the matter? This is the question.”
Still, no matter what happens in the future, one thing has become clear. The Syrian regime can never go back to what it was. In other words, as Raghida Dergham puts it, “Economic and political isolation will henceforth figure more and more in the discourse that is demanding Assad to step down, soon to come out of Washington, as well as European and Arab capitals, and perhaps even Turkey as well….The countdown has begun in parallel with the discourse calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down and for the prosecution of those responsible for the war crimes being committed in Syria. Such a discourse might lead the Syrian leadership to ultimately regain its senses, or it on the contrary, might arouse in it a sense of vindictiveness and revenge. Nevertheless, the wall of silence has been broken, and it is no longer possible for the Syrian regime to hide in its shadow.
That is not to say that future is not, as a Khaleej Times editorial suggests, “…fraught with concerns. The magnitude of violence that is expanding with each passing day threatens to dismember the country’s polity….The very fact that the Arab League, the European Union and the United States have called on Assad to step back from his iron-hand approach will not be easy to handle. In the midst of gunfire and bloodshed, Assad apparently has lost an opportunity to reform and rescue the Syrian society. His half-hearted measures of empowering the political parties and engaging them for a national dialogue seem to have all ended up in doldrums. What is needed instantly are ceasefire and a serene process of stability. Will Assad be able to do that is anybody’s guess!”
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