Beginning of the End for Assad? By Barbara Slavin, Senior Fellow at the South Asian Center at the Atlantic Council
Actions by the Arab League this week have given a regional seal of approval to Syrian opposition forces and could mark the beginning of the end of the Assad family dictatorship that has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Regional experts and members of the Syrian opposition expect the process to be long, complicated and bloody. But they say that the League's suspension of Syria – once the symbol of Arab nationalism – will embolden the opposition and encourage key foreign countries such as Syrian neighbour Turkey to turn decisively against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"This opens a lot of doors for the Syrian opposition," Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington and member of the new Syrian National Council (SNC), told an audience Monday at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Turkey, he said, has agreed to allow the SNC - which was formed in October and is headed by a Paris-based academic, Burhan Ghalioun - to open an office in Istanbul. Turkey is also sending a representative to an Arab League meeting in Rabat, Morocco Wednesday that is expected to confirm Syria's suspension from the League and call for deploying hundreds of monitors from Arab human rights organisations around the country.
The intent of such a deployment would be to deter Syrian armed forces from killing more people and provide independent accounts of clashes when they occur. It is highly unlikely, however, that the Assad regime would allow monitors into the country after killing more than 3,500 people since March -- including 70 in the past 24 hours, according to human rights groups.
Condemnation by the Arab League is a prerequisite for more serious international steps against the Syrian government. However, foreign military intervention – such as the NATO action that eventually overturned the Muammar Qaddafi regime in Libya – is unlikely in the near future.
The Russian author Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that "happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Thus Syria, although it shares some characteristics with dictatorships that have fallen this year in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, differs in important respects.
While protests have occurred throughout the country, there have not been mass demonstrations yet in the capital, Damascus, or Syria's second largest city, Aleppo, unlike the protests that took place in Cairo and Tunis. The opposition to the government has yet to unify as most Libyans did behind a Transitional National Council based in eastern Libya. The externally-based SNC is at odds with the Damascus- based National Coordination Committee (NCC) over a number of issues.
Jouejati said the only thing the SNC wants to negotiate with Assad is the manner and timing of his departure, while the NCC has backed what most observers see as meaningless discussions with the government on political reforms.
Both groups oppose violence and worry that militarising the opposition would make it easier for the regime to justify its brutal crackdown. However, about 15,000 members of the Syrian military have already defected, according to Jouejati, with many joining a self- styled Free Syrian Army based in Turkey.
The government crackdown, he said, is being carried out largely by the 4th division of the Syrian Army and the Republican Guard – both largely comprised of members of Syria's ruling Alawite religious minority. The rank and file is predominantly Sunni Muslim, as are most Syrians.
Fear of Syria devolving into a multi-sided civil war among its religious and ethnic components was a major factor in the Arab League decision to suspend the Assad government. A League delegation had won Assad's approval for a peace deal on Nov. 2, but the regime promptly violated its promise to withdraw tanks from the streets and to stop shooting peaceful protestors - as it has reneged on previous agreements.
Over the past few months, Assad – who lacks the strategic finesse of his legendary father, Hafez – has managed to alienate most of his once ardent regional backers, including Qatar's influential emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On Monday, Erdogan told members of his AK political party, that "Assad should see the tragic ends of the ones who declared war against their own people… I want to remind him that future cannot be built on the blood of the oppressed."
The same day, King Abdullah of Jordan told the BBC, referring to Assad, "I believe, if I were in his shoes, I would step down."
The Barack Obama administration has also called for Assad to leave and applauded the Arab League decision to suspend Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement Nov. 12 that the U.S. "commends the principled stand taken by the Arab League…The United States reiterates its calls for an immediate end to the violence, for free unfettered access for human rights monitors and journalists to deter and document grave human rights abuses and for Assad to step aside so a peaceful transition can begin. As today's Arab League decision demonstrates, the international pressure will continue to build until the brutal Assad regime heeds the calls of its own people and the world community."
For now, that pressure consists of ever tightening economic sanctions primarily by the United States and the European Union. Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, told the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, on Nov. 7 that military intervention was not planned because three criteria have not been met.
"There needs to be a demonstrable need, regional support, and sound legal basis for action," Daalder said. "None of them apply in Syria."
After the events so far this week, it could be argued that Syria is close to satisfying the first two criteria. So far, however, the "sound legal basis for action" in the form of a U.N. Security Council resolution has not been forthcoming.
Jouejati said that he hoped the Arab League decision would influence Russia, a long-time ally of Syria that has blocked Security Council action by using its veto power. A delegation from the SNC met Tuesday in Moscow with Russian officials but there were no indications that Russia, which maintains a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, was ready to break with the Assad regime.
Both Jouejati and Robert Danin, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and former deputy assistant secretary of state, said the U.S. and NATO should keep a military option open to convince Assad to step down.
"You should leave the Syrians with some ambiguity" about military intervention, Danin said Monday.
The Assad family has been frequently compared to the Corleones of the "Godfather" books and movies. Bashar al-Assad has been likened to Fredo, the weakest and least intelligent son of Mafia boss Vito Corleone.
Danin said, however, that Bashar was more like Michael Corleone, the youngest son, who initially wanted nothing to do with his family's illegal and bloody business. Trained as an ophthalmologist, Bashar became the heir to the presidency after his elder brother, Basil, was killed in a car accident in 1994. Their father died in 2000.
"Michael wanted to go legit but he got pulled in, and the more he got pulled in, the more brutal he became," Danin said. Now, as in the Godfather saga, "the family relies on him (Bashar) for its survival."