Last chance for Damascus
The Arab League has stopped short of expelling Syria for its crackdown on protesters, but all concerned parties know that deep political change must occur, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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Syrian and Lebanese protesters in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, burn and throw shoes at pictures of the Syrian president
At the end of an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in mid-October, the Arab League urged the Syrian regime to immediately halt the use of force against peaceful protesters, end all military action, abandon the security solution to unrest, and protect civilians. The Arab League resolution also called for national dialogue between the government and all opposition forces at the League's headquarters within 15 days, forming a ministerial committee headed by Qatar's foreign minister and including the foreign ministers of Algeria, Sudan, Oman and Egypt. The League's secretary general, meanwhile, was to talk to Syrian leaders about realising the aspirations of the Syrian people for change. At the same time, the regional organisation threatened "necessary action" to ensure the safety of the Syrian people.
Syria's Arab League representative announced Syria's objection to "the entirety" of the relevant resolution, especially choosing Qatar's prime minister and foreign minister to head the Arab ministerial committee because of what he described as "Qatar's biased and negative political and media role regarding events in Syria". He also objected to holding a dialogue between the regime and the opposition outside Syria, since his country is "an independent and sovereign state that is capable of managing its own affairs and protecting its security and interests."
The official Syrian press strongly criticised the Arab League, accusing the organisation of pandering "to the agenda of hostile international forces such as the US, Israel and EuropeŇê¦ [and] sabotaging Arab interests." The media rejected the Arab League resolution, asserting that any dialogue should take place inside Syria and be attended by all forces, with the League as an observer. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi spoke with Syria's foreign minister to find out where Syria really stands on the League's resolution.
The positions of the opposition inside and outside the country were at odds in their reaction to the Arab League resolution, especially since some believed the Arab League would suspend Syria's membership in the regional organisation, such as was the case with Libya. Some opposition forces rejected the decision, citing the many chances given to the Syrian regime that were squandered, while others in the opposition welcomed the resolution arguing that it could prevent foreign military intervention as long as the Arab League's conditions are met, especially regarding halting violence and withdrawing military forces.
The Syrian National Council (SNC) and its allies, which represents the majority of opposition groups outside Syria, announced their refusal to have a dialogue on principle "with a regime whose hands are soaked with the blood of Syrians", after more than 3,000 civilians were killed according to UN statistics (activists put this figure much higher). The SNC described the Arab League resolution as "a disappointment" because it gives the Syrian regime more time to suppress the protest movement that began in mid-March, adding that the 15-day grace period is a "diplomatic gift" to the regime to carry out more killings and shed more Syrian blood.
In contrast, the Coordination Association of the Forces for Democratic Change (CAFDC) and its 15 political parties, representing most opposition forces inside Syria, welcomed the resolution as long as the first section prioritised -- essentially, an end to the killing of civilians, withdrawing the army from the street, releasing tens of thousands of prisoners, and the immediate implementation of genuine political reforms. CAFDC said it was willing to meet with the Arab ministerial committee to explain its position and listen to its ideas.
Other opposition forces that are not part of either coalition argued that the resolution could contribute to isolating and exposing the Syrian regime further, since Damascus will not implement the demands by the Arab League. All Syrians living abroad described the Arab resolution as "dead in the water", asserting that the Syrians would never accept any initiative made under threat.
Paris was quick to respond positively to the fact that the Arab League is once again engaged in the Syrian issue. France's foreign ministry urged the League to take firmer steps towards the Syrian regime, to force it to stop its brutal suppression. The US also described the resolution as "good and positive", while Russia -- which blocks any UN resolutions condemning the Syrian regime -- also praised the Arab effort and reiterated the need to prevent foreign intervention in Syria.
Protesters decided to call the Friday following the Arab League resolution the "Friday of the Martyrs of the Arab Extension", since it gives the regime 15 days grace, that they say will only result in more deaths. There were massive demonstrations across Syria demanding the overthrow of the regime, and protesters addressed Arab League members in their chants: "Give him all the time you want; victory is ours!" Syrian security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing no less than 30 among them.
The death of Muammar Gaddafi inspired Syrians on that day, giving them more confidence that their struggle will in the end lead to the results they aspire for, especially since Libya's new rulers recognised the National Opposition Council in Syria as the legitimate authority in Syria. Protesters in some Syrian towns raised the flag of Libya's National Transitional Council and chanted slogans that the fate of Syria's president will be even worse than his Libyan peer.
Although Damascus accused the Arab League of working to advance Israel's interests, it agreed on Friday to host an Arab ministerial delegation headed by Qatar on Wednesday -- one day before the Arab deadline for dialogue. Damascus agreed to the Arab ministerial delegation but not to the content of the Arab League resolution.
Once Syria agreed to meet with the Arab delegation, the opposition bloc inside the country decided to meet with the ambassadors of the five states in the delegation to explain its position and clarify its conditions. During the meetings it reiterated that Damascus must immediately implement the first part of the Arab initiative, by ending security measures and accepting a political solution as the only way out.
If the most recent Arab initiative fails, it will join a long list of unsuccessful bids. An earlier Arab initiative at the end of August calling for an end to violence, the release of prisoners, forming a united national government led by someone accepted by the opposition, and holding multi-party presidential elections in 2014 flopped. At the same time, several mediations and proposals by Turkey calling for an end to killing, withdrawing the army and prosecuting officials responsible for the death of civilians were also sidelined. Russia had suggested dialogue with the opposition, but Damascus ignored this, insisting on continuing to use force to end protests.
Conditions demanding the withdrawal of the army and security forces, recognition of the legitimacy of the protest movement and the demands by the people were always the sticking points for the regime -- reportedly because it feared that meeting these conditions would result in millions of Syrians coming out in even larger protests.
Some opposition circles believe that dialogue with the regime is impossible and would be seen by the enraged masses as betrayal, because dialogue would exonerate the regime of the crimes, premeditated killings, arrests and destruction it has committed. It would transform it from a criminal entity to one that embraces dialogue and reconciliation. They argue that the regime has not recognised and will never recognise the opposition and that it has alienated even moderates in the opposition, and therefore it cannot hold talks with revolutionary forces that believe that the overthrow of the regime is a fundamental demand.
At the same time, it says that if the security grip is partially loosened, while security and army forces and death squads are withdrawn, the regime would immediately collapse because the majority of the people of all political stripes, religions and doctrines will come out en masse across the country to declare their decision to depose the regime.
Observers believe that since the regime has not accepted the Arab initiative, especially the sections dealing with ending suppression and killing of opposition figures and revolutionaries, this could result in the suspension of its membership in the Arab League and its agencies, or at minimum a deadline for possible suspension. This would pave the way for a UN resolution against the Syrian regime, and perhaps the world community would take specific and bold steps once and for all to completely isolate Syria. According to these observers, the regime would be responsible for this escalation and that it must now shoulder the future repercussions of what is occurring in Syria.