Arab States Desert Syrian Leader

Former friends supporters distance themselves as unrest continues in Syria.
By Zoe Holman - The Arab Spring
Arab Spring Issue 27,
18 Aug 11

Diplomatic pressure on Syria is growing as the rest of the Arab world withdraws support, and analysts say former allies of President Bashar al-Assad now view his administration as a liability.

As the West’s stance continues to harden – United States president Barack Obama this week called on Assad to step down – the Syrian regime is also becoming ever more isolated within the region.

In a major policy shift, the 22-member Arab League issued its first official statement on the five-month old uprising on August 7, calling for an immediate halt to the violent crackdown which has seen an estimated 2,700 Syrians killed since March.

The announcement was followed hours later by a speech from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, condemning the tactics of the Syria’s Baathist authorities and recalling the kingdom’s ambassador in protest at the violence.

This tough talk represents a dramatic change in position for an organisation which had previously come under international criticism for its failure to act on Syria.

Analysts say the Arab League’s new policy stance stems from a strategic assessment that Assad is becoming a burden on regional stability.

“A regime that launches a major military assault on Hama on the eve of Ramadan does not smack of good decision-making to me, and I don’t think it does to Arab countries either,” Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told IWPR. “The US and United Nations’ positions have hardened in response to the same escalation of violence, so now almost all the international community is working on the same page on Syria.”

The turnaround by the Arab League came as the UN Security Council issued its first joint condemnation of violence by the Assad regime, with Lebanon the only member to abstain.

However, some see the Arab League’s criticism as more of an attempt to preserve the interest of certain member states than a sign it has bowed to international pressure.

“Saudi Arabia made the move when it became convenient to them, rather than when the US wanted it a few months ago,” Chris Phillips, Syria analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said.

Phillips said that while the Saudi monarchy has sponsored the crushing of dissent in Bahrain and other Arab states, it has come to view Assad as a threat to stability in the Middle East.

“Saudi Arabia holds a lot of weight, and this was a foreign policy calculation which indicates that regional powers are beginning to think about what a post-Assad Syria might look like,” he said.

While the actions of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in Libya have caused less concern to regional leaders, the Syrian regime is seen as more important because of its geographic and political proximity to Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.

Regional leaders fear continued unrest in Syria could descend into an Iraq- or Lebanon-style civil conflict on their doorsteps, posing economic and security risks they are keenn to avoid.

Experts say regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey are beginning to consider how seeking a stake in a reconfigured Syria might help preserve their influence, in particular against Iran, a major rival.

“At first there was a lot of scepticism by Arab states about whether the Syrian protests could carry on for long against Assad,” Malik al-Abdeh, head of the Syrian opposition satellite channel Barada TV, said. “But now it has reached the point where even if it doesn’t succeed in all its avowed aims, there will nevertheless be a drastic change in the Syrian political makeup, and everyone wants to be part of the new settlement.”

Such public policy-making by Arab League states represents a break from the organisation’s traditional code of non-interference, he added.

“The Saudis are the guardians of the Arab system which says, ‘do not get involved in the internal affairs of your neighbouring countries’,” he said. “So people could be getting butchered next door and the idea is to look the other way. This system has historically served the Saudis and other dictators very well by keeping them in power.”

The perception among Arab states that Assad is a liability is a major blow to the credibility of his regime, which hitherto prided itself on its being at the forefront of Arab resistance to external intervention in the region.

“A huge component of Syria’s political legitimacy in the region has come from its foreign policy. The Assad regime has founded itself on the claim it was the leader of the Arabs, through its campaign against Israel and opposition to western intervention,” Phillips said. “This condemnation further erodes Assad’s legitimacy, which is why he will be keen to portray the Arab League as western lackeys.”

However, despite Assad’s tarnished international standing, it may better suit the Arab League’s strategic goals to urge him to reform rather than step down. Pressing him to go would risk the uncertainty of regime change or revolution.

The Arab League’s statement was carefully devised so as to leave open the possibility of reform, and its secretary general Nabil al-Arabi emphasised that “the chance is still available to the president to respond to the Syrian people's ambitions and legal demands for freedom and change”.

As al-Abdeh notes, such an outcome might avoid jeopardising the economy and security of the region, while enabling states like Saudi Arabia to pressure Assad into moving away from Iranian influence.

“The last thing anyone in the region wants is foreign intervention by NATO which might undermine their influence,” he said. “It is far preferable for Arab states that Assad goes back to killing stomachable numbers and leads some kind of democratic transition, rather than the whole axis being threatened by regime change.”

Syria's neighbour Turkey has also expressed increasing frustration with the regime, comparing Assad to his Gaddafi after he failed to respond to the two-week deadline that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set for an end to the violence.

The results of such growing international pressure are as yet unclear.

President Bashar told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on August 18 that his army's raids in key protest towns had ended. However, Syrian activists have reported that the killings and arrests continue, and analysts are sceptical about the president’s claims.

Salwa Ismail, politics professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, was in Damascus until May and is doubtful that the regime will be easily swayed from its campaign of violence.

“The opposition appreciates the symbolism of Arab League support, and it may help them to pressure Lebanon at the UN Security Council,” she said. “But short of concrete action like an economic boycott, it doesn’t look like it will affect Assad’s behaviour at all.

“If anything, Assad has taken the Turkish prime minister’s two-week deadline to end the violence as a message that he can continue crushing dissent,” she continued. “This is not a regime that is responsive to regional pressure – it seems the only response it knows is killing.”

Zoe Holman is a regular IWPR contributor.