The clock ticks
As the pressure builds on the Syrian regime, is time running out for President Bashar Al-Assad or for Syria itself, asks Dina Ezzat
A meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in the Qatari capital Doha this week took the unprecedented step of calling on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to step down from power and allow a transitional government to take office in Syria.
Those at the meeting, which convened on Monday, said that the Syrian president should leave office and end the security clampdown that has been taking place in the country over the past 15 months in a bid to stay in power.
"The time has ended for political reform. What is needed now is the transition of power. There is no other way of doing things," said Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Arabi at a press conference on Tuesday.
According to statements made by El-Arabi and the Qatari prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Hamad bin Jassim, after the meeting, Al-Assad had squandered the opportunity to resolve the crisis through reform, carrying out only cosmetic changes that had failed to address the demands of those protesting against the regime.
The bloodshed caused by the security crackdown against the protesters had now affected the Syrian army and top figures in the regime, the statements said.
"The Doha meeting convened shortly after some of Al-Assad's top aides were killed in the heart of Damascus. The call of the Arab foreign ministers is not just a political bluff, but is a serious warning that Al-Assad needs to start looking for an exit and the sooner the better," said one Arab diplomat who took part in the Doha meeting.
According to the diplomat, those at the meeting had speculated that Al-Assad must be wondering how much longer he has left in office. "If he is not doing so, he must be in denial. It is this that the Doha meeting should have helped him to overcome," the diplomat said.
The final communiqué adopted by the Doha meeting called on Al-Assad to step down from office and to hand over power to a transitional government.
It also called for the establishment of "safe zones" in Syrian territory and on the country's borders to protect refugees fleeing the fighting between Syrian government forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is acting for the armed opposition.
The Doha meeting also decided to sever contacts with the Syrian regime and to call on friendly countries to follow the same line.
"Moscow needs to understand that its position is compromising Arab interests," El-Arabi said in his Tuesday press statement, referring to the actions Russia and China have taken to block UN Security Council resolutions criticising Syria.
The meeting decided to send Bin Jassim to Moscow and Beijing for talks with top officials on the Syrian crisis.
"The mission of the Qatari prime minister is to seek to accommodate the concerns of Russia and China about their regional interests and to tell them that their wider interests in the Middle East are being compromised by their defence of Al-Assad, a bloody dictator killing his own people," said an Arab League source.
The mission will not be easy, even though Ben Jassim is known to be capable of delivering on the most difficult deals. He is expected to offer Russia and China assurances, coupled perhaps with veiled threats, about their energy interests in the Gulf. However, the maximum he is expected to deliver as a result is Russian and Chinese abstention when a new Security Council resolution is tabled over the next few weeks.
The Arab political initiative comes against a backdrop of serious concerns that if Al-Assad does not step down soon Syria may be divided into two: a Sunni zone controlled by the rebels and a Shia zone controlled by the al-Assad regime.
Such a division, Arab and western diplomats agree, would not be in the interests of regional stability.
If Al-Assad were to be toppled rather than to choose to step down, there could be anarchy in Syria that could lead to Israeli intervention, something that would provoke an Arab outcry.
"It is in the interests of everyone that Al-Assad makes the decision to step down, and of course Russia and China could help to convince him," said the same Arab League source.
Syria has shrugged off the Arab League call, labelling it "a repulsive intervention in Syrian internal affairs".
However, if the Al-Assad regime can afford to ignore the Arab League, it may not be able to ignore the fact that Iran, one of its closest allies, has suggested prompt presidential elections.
The regime will also be hard put to ignore increased European sanctions and intensified American diplomatic efforts to weaken Al-Assad's rule.
Arab and Western diplomats who have served in Syria say that the weaker Al-Assad gets, the bloodier he has become.
"His fall has been anticipated over and over again, but there is no guarantee that he will fall. We have been saying for over a year now that his regime is coming to an end," commented one Western diplomat.