Arab States, West Keeping Boot on Assad’s Neck

Assad’s Syria is more isolated than it’s ever been but real change has got to come from within the country.

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad listens to a question from a reporter in Paris, December 9, 2010
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad listens to a question from a reporter in Paris, December 9, 2010 (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)

Eid al-Adha, or “Festival of Sacrifice,” is one of the most joyous and religiously significant holidays for observing Muslims around the world. The start of the celebrations are typically marked by Muslims of all nationalities as a time to count their blessings, mingle with friends and spend quality time with family members.

The day commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God’s sake and comes after the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s two holiest sites in the Arabian Peninsula, the cities Mecca and Medina. It’ss such an important holiday to the Islamic faith that millions upon millions of people participate, some celebrating in groups as large as entire villages.

For Syrians, this year’s celebration was of particular significance. Only a few days before the events were to begin, President Bashar al-Assad had accepted an Arab League proposal from the prime minister of Qatar to stop the bloodshed against demonstrators in his country.

The agreement drafted by the Arab committee was so unprecedented in scope that Syrian opposition groups quickly lambasted the document as another vehicle for Assad to give his regime more time to slaughter civilians. In addition to the termination of violence against protesters, the Arab League deal stipulated that Assad must withdraw his army and security forces from cities, promote a dialogue with the political opposition and release the tens of thousands of political prisoners.

To add to the measure, Assad tried to put his own spin on the Arab League’s conditions, announcing that his government would pardon all demonstrators who turned themselves and their weapons into the authorities.

The skeptics of the Arab intervention were proven right. Rather than the violence diminishing or Syrian troops returning to their bases, civilians continue to be hit by Assad’s security services. Tanks and armored carriers full of Assad’s troops and paramilitary personnel sweep through the neighborhoods of Homs, a center for the anti-government campaign, while demonstrators marching after morning prayers were gunned down and left to bleed on the streets.

Approximately one hundred people are estimated to have been killed since the Syrian government signed the Arab League peace plan. Despite Assad’s broken promises, the United Nations Security Council is essentially powerless to stop the violence as China and Russia stall all efforts by Britain, France and the United States to condemn the regime. The Arab League met on Sunday to suspend Syrian membership of the body.

The United States are literally an ocean way from the situation as their ambassador was pulled from the country in response to threats made on his life. But Washington and its Arab and European allies can aggressively press on with their rhetorical and sanctions against Assad — who may never be ready to seriously begin a transition to democratic government.

Regional and Western action so far has isolated Syria more than it’s ever been since Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency from his father eleven years ago.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, who has become something of a rock star in the Arab world, has cut off his relationship with his once personal friend Bashar to near nonexistence. Anti-regime fighters are reportedly assembling a base in Turkey just over the Syrian border which would have been inconceivable only a year ago when Syrian-Turkish relations were thriving.

The Gulf states, which never truly trusted or respected Assad in the first place, have abandoned Syria by withdrawing their diplomatic missions. Saudi king Abdullah has come out with forceful language against the Syrian government’s crackdown. Even Iran, Syria’s closest ally in the region, is starting to question whether its partnership with Assad is more trouble than it is worth. (Although Tehran may secretly be prodding Assad to take a hard line.)

Assad’s regime has so far survived Syria’s most tumultuous protest movement since the 1982 Hama uprisings. The bulk of the Syrian army is intact with only a few thousand Sunni conscripts changing sides. And Iran has a lot invested in Assad who provides the Iranians with both a strategic front in the heart of the Arab world and a key logistical route to its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon.

The bravery and determination of millions of Syrians, secular and Islamist, young and old, has affected Assad’s prestige nevertheless. The president’s antagonists will keep their boots on his neck, mindful that foreign intervention could very well put off Syrians who want to solve the problem on their own.

Assad is his own worse enemy, digging himself into the ground an inch deeper with every bullet fired by a Syrian government sniper or machine gun. It may be better to stay out of the way and let the Syrian people expose the dictator for what he is — a groomed mustached version of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.