Arab Monitors Begin Their Mission in Syria

Inspectors from the Arab League arrive to see if President Assad is keeping his word to end the violence.

Last Monday, Syria witnessed the bloodiest day of the Syrian uprising with close to one hundred people killed across the country by Bashar al-Assad’s army and police forces.

The government-sponsored violence over the next two days either kept that pace or accelerated in some areas, particularly in northwest Syria, where activists and villagers have reported scenes of a “massacre” by tanks and machine gunners. During arguably the worst period of intimidation since the democratic protests began last March, the Syrian National Council, the most prominent anti-government political organization outside the country, has released figures suggesting that two hundred and fifty people were killed last week over a 48 hour span.

It is now undeniable that the Syrian regime is intent on stopping the protest wave any way it can, even if heavy weapons like anti-aircraft guns and tank warfare need to be used to get the job done.

The total death toll is now probably far higher than the 5,000 reported by the United Nation’s senior human rights official this month. It will continue to go up as more conscripts chuck their Syrian army uniforms and run into the arms of the opposition — a development that Assad’s Republican Guard forces have quickly responded to with summary executions, indiscriminate arrest operations and tank shelling.

With the cities of Syria literally running red with blood, it would be inappropriate, if not downright insulting, to suggest that Bashar al-Assad truly wants to usher in democratic reforms for his country. As long as Assad’s Ba’ath Party is considered to be the heart and soul of Syrian political life, the prospects of Syrians voting the way they would like to is just as delusional.

The crisis has caused even Syria’s allies to think twice before vouching Assad in public. Close to two months ago, China and China vetoed a Security Council resolution demanding that Syria halt violence against its citizens and pull its army from civilian areas. Now Moscow appears to be edging closer to the Western position, disregarding its previous stance of refusing to meddle in the affairs of a sovereign state.

In a draft resolution circulated to other Security Council members by the Russians, the Syrian government is urged to suspend its “suppression of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.”

The Russians also call on the Syrian authorities to initiate a judicial investigation targeting those who have either ordered, were a part of or who were in any way implicated in abuses. The statement is an about-face from last October, when Moscow teamed up with Beijing to block a unified Council response to the violence.

In what may be another boost to the protesters, Arab League officials have reported that Syria’s foreign minister has accepted the Gulf Arab plan to send mediators into Syria to make sure that the government is actually doing what it says it is doing — pulling its forces back, releasing political prisoners swept up in the violence, reaching out to the Syrian opposition and generally ending the killing and arrests. On this front, Russia also appears to be at the forefront with the Foreign Ministry confirming that the government decided to allow monitors in after poking and prodding by Russian diplomats.

Moscow is still far away from where France, the United Kingdom and the United States would like it to be and with the Syrian regime having broken so many promises in the past, activists and Western powers are reluctant to celebrate the Arab League mission prematurely.

Although the Syrian government has promised unfettered access, there is a disbelief that the Arab monitors sent into the country will be allowed to travel to the worst effected areas freely. President Assad will be sure to make the lives of these monitors difficult, because he rightly understands that failing to obstruct the mission would confirm what nearly everyone has been saying about his regime since the unrest broke out — that it is brutal, inhumane and entirely at fault.

Similarly, withdrawing troops from centers of protest and releasing the tens of thousands of prisoners who have been thrown into jail cells would be an act of capitulation to the opposition.

Agreement aside, Assad has passed the point of no return. Minus resignation and a publicly humiliating trial, Syrians will not react to any of his reforms positively. The killings will continue with the Arab League now directly involved. Without stronger words and actions from China and Russia, a complete enforcement from Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan of the Arab League sanctions, and a Syrian president that inexplicably changes his stripes, a diplomatic solution to the crisis seems no longer a viable option.