Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 December 2011
Issue No. 1077
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Last chance for Syria?

After weeks of prevarication and delay, the Syrian government has agreed to Arab monitors verifying the Arab peace initiative, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Since the beginning of the uprising against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad nine months ago, Arab states and the international community have given the Syrian regime many opportunities to end the bloodshed and seek a political resolution to the crisis.

The first such initiative was sponsored by Turkey, which previously had strong ties with Syria, the Turkish government suggesting a number of means to end the crisis in the weeks after the uprising broke out, including through political and economic reforms.

However, the Turkish effort failed, and Syria asked its northern neighbour not to interfere in its domestic affairs. Ankara responded that Syrian affairs were also Turkish affairs, given the possibility of instability or violence spilling over the border into Turkey. The Syrian leadership's criticisms of the Ankara government damaged relations between the two countries, eventually leading to all-out hostility between them.

Qatar was the next country to enter the fray, with the country's emir sending delegations for talks with the Syrian president. Once again, Syria responded with anger at what it called Qatar's interference, accusing the Gulf Arab state of being part of a conspiracy against the Syrian regime and encouraging the uprising in the country.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime continued its security actions against the demonstrators in the country, ignoring Arab mediation efforts. As a result, the Syrian opposition stepped up appeals to the Arab League, asking the regional organisation to take action to end the attacks on civilians.

On 14 June, the Arab League condemned the crackdown in Syria, calling on the Syrian regime to stop the violence and implement reforms corresponding to the demands of the demonstrators.

However, this call did not lead to action by the regime, and at the end of October Arab foreign ministers meeting under the auspices of the Arab League launched a further initiative to end the bloodshed in Syria.

This proposal called for the withdrawal of military and security forces from all Syrian cities and the release of tens of thousands of political detainees and of those arrested during the demonstrations. It also called for the launch of dialogue with the country's opposition.

The Syrian regime responded by saying that the Arab League proposals "are not worth the paper they are written on."

In mid-November, the Arab League suspended Syria's membership of the organisation, citing the country's failure to implement the Arab peace initiative. The League threatened to impose sanctions on Syria if it did not sign up to the agreement and to the deployment of Arab monitors.

In response, Damascus proposed amendments to the initiative, eventually demanding five extensions to the original schedule in order to consider it. At the end of November, the Arab League implemented the threatened economic and political sanctions against Syria.

Arab diplomatic sources emphasised throughout that the League had done everything possible to accommodate Syria and that it had agreed to 16 amendments proposed by Syria regarding the deployment of Arab monitors.

Meanwhile, Russia, a powerful ally of Syria since the Soviet era, has twice blocked UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime. However, it seems that Russia too has been running out of patience with Damascus, since it proposed a draft resolution to the Security Council earlier this month that was initially welcomed by the European states.

The resolution was later described as a "manoeuvre" by France and the US because of its "unbalanced and hollow language" that condemned the violence by all sides and did not specifically pick out the violence used by the Syrian regime.

Following Syria's announcement that it would agree to Arab monitors being deployed in the country, diplomatic sources say that Damascus asked that the five members of the committee dealing with the initiative within the Arab League should "end anti-Syrian campaigns in the media."

On Monday, Syria's foreign minister said that Damascus had agreed to the provisions of the Arab initiative after advice by Russia to do so. He added that Syria welcomed the Arab monitors mentioned in the initiative, which also calls for the withdrawal of military and security forces from Syrian towns and cities and the release of political prisoners.

On the same day that Syria announced it had signed the initiative, three civilians were killed, including one child, in the Al-Maydan district of Damascus by security forces who fired on tens of thousands of protesters taking part in the funeral of a seven-year-old girl.

The girl had been shot dead a day earlier in front of her school by the security forces as she and fellow students participated in an anti-regime protest. At the same time, a hospital in the town of Tadmur in central Syria was destroyed with patients and doctors still inside, and Al-Zawya was shelled with heavy artillery.

For its part, the Syrian opposition doubts the sincerity of the regime's protestations of reform, with Borhan Ghalioun, chair of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), describing Syria's signing of the Arab initiative as "another manoeuvre."

"They are lying to themselves and to the people," Ghalioun said, adding that the Arab League plan simply gave the Syrian regime "another opportunity to scheme and procrastinate."

The fact that Syria has signed the initiative is not important, the opposition says. Far more important is its willingness to implement it, opposition groups saying that the regime is simply playing for time and that it has no intention of implementing the agreement.

According to the protocol signed by the Syrian regime, the Arab League committee responsible will choose monitors to send to the country, and the names of these will be forwarded to the Syrian government, which will have the right to accept or object to them.

Following this, Arab monitors will finally begin to arrive in Syria, in other words a month at least after the agreement was signed.

According to the Syrian opposition, the regime realises that as soon as it withdraws its security forces from the country's towns and cities and ends the killings and arrests, millions of people will take to the streets in demonstrations calling for its fall.

Accordingly, it intends to stall as much as possible, while making occasional noises accepting the need for reform.

Radwan Ziyada, director of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, commented that the Syrian regime would not comply with the Arab initiative even though it had signed it. "The steps taken by the Arab League are important in terms of suspending Syria's membership and the economic boycott, but the League cannot ensure the safety of civilians, and we will continue to seek to refer the issue to the Security Council."

Ziyada said that there was a "need to hold the regime accountable and ensure the safety of civilians, either by creating secure zones or partial no-fly zones in the country, or by allowing monitors inside the country."

If Syria does not implement the initiative or obstructs the work of the Arab monitors, the Syrian issue will find its way to the Security Council, which may then take action to end the bloodshed.

According to the UN, the crisis in Syria has now affected nearly 1.5 million people, and conditions continue to deteriorate. Should the Arab initiative fail to end the crisis, this may trigger international action to overthrow the regime.

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