Al-Assad's last roar?
Can the regime in Damascus survive 2012? Dina Ezzat
looks for an answer
The regime of Bashar Al-Assad might consider this week's UN Security Council meeting on developments in Syria as a diplomatic victory given that the international community failed to effectively toughen its stance towards Damascus. But that would be a mistake, say Arab and Western diplomats. They agree with the Syrian opposition that such an interpretation involves a misreading of the situation on the ground.
"What is being debated now is ending the regime of Al-Assad, one way or another," says a source within the Cairo-based Syrian opposition. "Nobody, not even the Russians with whom we have been talking, or Iran, Al-Assad's strongest ally, have any illusions about him remaining in power."
The consensus within political and diplomatic quarters is that 2012 will likely see the end of the rule of Bashar Al-Assad, the ophthalmologist who took over in 2000 from his father Hafez Al-Assad, Syria's president since 1970.
"Bashar Al-Assad might be in denial. He might even believe what he said [on Tuesday], that what is happening in Syria is not an uprising against his rule but an attempt by some armed groups to overthrow him in order to destabilise Syria and undermine Iran and Hizbullah," speculated one Arab diplomat.
"This would be a wrong assessment. The key players have all decided Bashar must exit the stage. How that happens is something he can decide."
This, adds the diplomat, was the real message sent by the UN Security Council meeting, and by Sunday's Arab League meeting in Cairo, convened to assess the performance of the Arab League's mission in Syria.
"We are not going as far as the French in demanding that Bashar step down now," said a Cairo-based Western diplomat, "but we have made it clear that we strongly support the fulfilment of the aspirations of the Syrian people as they join other Arab countries in the pursuit of democracy."
Sunday's Arab League meeting fought shy of announcing the failure of its mission in Syria to monitor a reduction in the violence against protesters. To do so would have helped the Western bloc on the UN Security Council by increasing pressure on Russia and China, who jointly vetoed a draft resolution to strengthen economic sanctions against Syria.
The mandate of the Arab League mission, some of whose members came under physical attack on Tuesday morning, ends on 19 January. Sources suggest that it is unlikely to be renewed in the face of opposition from Qatar and other Gulf states, which are demanding the UN Security Council take the lead.
Divisions within the League were apparent at the joint press conference given by Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi and Hamad bin Jassim, the Qatari prime minister and foreign minister who heads the League's ministerial committee on Syria. Any suggestions by El-Arabi that the League's mission in Syria be extended, keeping the matter within Arab hands pending a political settlement, were met with scepticism by Bin Jassim, who questioned the possibility of any political settlement emerging in the absence of firm pressure on Al-Assad.
Sources following deliberations at the UN point out that some members of the Security Council are impatient for a declaration that the Arab League mission is ending, having failed to complete its task of overseeing a halt in the violence against demonstrators.
Members of the mission themselves see this as the most likely outcome given the Damascus regime's reluctance to halt its attacks against protesters.
Al-Assad's Tuesday speech, in which he promised "an iron fist to end armed operations that aim to destabilise Syria" is causing serious concern among those opposed to any Security Council intervention.
"That members of the mission came under attack, and Al-Assad is promising more violence, does not exactly help us keep the doors open for a political settlement that might allow Al-Assad a [dignified] exit," stated an Arab League source.
"We are hoping that the Syrian president will take a historic decision that meets the legitimate aspirations of his people and keeps Syria strong and stable," said Jassim during the Sunday press conference.
The problem, according to many familiar with the intricacies of Syrian politics, is that the decision is not Bashar's alone, perhaps not his at all.
"Bashar is the representative of the ruling minority. At one point they may have been willing to give up on him to maintain their influence. Now they know the end of Bashar means the end of their rule they will probably keep him even if he decided he wanted to go," says an Arab diplomat who has served in Damascus. (see p.7)