A call for change in Syria that the Arab world can lead

The whole world, it seems, has spoken up against the Syrian regime's atrocities - except for the Arab League, which should be playing a leading role.

For months now, the world has witnessed an acceleration of deadly violence in Syria, as the government of Bashar Al Assad has resorted to increasingly brutal methods in an effort to smash a mass uprising.

While the government maintains that it has offered the protesters a range of reform proposals, its lethal repression of largely peaceful demonstrations has called into question the seriousness of its intention to change its approach to governance.

Negotiations between the regime and the opposition, leading to a transition to democracy, may have been possible at one point, but given the government's behaviour, that moment has long passed. As a result the protesters have sharpened their resolve, now demanding that the regime be toppled. This, in turn, has brought on even more repression.

The spectacle of tens and hundreds of thousands Syrians bravely confronting tanks, troops and snipers has been inspiring. Just as the resilience and courage of the Syrian people have been a wonder to behold, the stubbornness of the regime has been confounding.

The current path being pursued by the government is a dead end and yet it has steadfastly rebuffed all appeals to change direction, even those coming from formerly friendly states. As one Lebanese leftist analyst put it, "the regime is committing suicide".

Concern for Syria is heightened by the fact that while the regime has acted poorly, the country's fragmented opposition is not in a position to govern and ensure the safety, security and basic rights of the Syrian people.

Particularly worrisome is the situation of vulnerable minority religious and ethnic communities and large populations of Palestinians and Iraqis who have found refuge in Syria. Many feel that they may now be at risk of an Iraq-like scenario playing out in the country. This fear of an unknown future is the last card the regime can still play, allowing it to hold onto the support of some segments of Syrian society.

This violence and repression have gone on too long and there are dangerous signs that should they continue, the situation may spin further out of control, with lawlessness, calls for revenge and sectarian conflict growing. While this, too, has been a mantra of the regime, there should be no mistaking the fact that the current state of affairs is due to the behaviour of the regime itself: its egotistical attitude; its deafness to the cries of its people; and its history of refusing to allow any real independent political institutions to develop in the country.

This week the US president, Barack Obama, took the step of declaring that President Al Assad should "step aside" and "get out of the way" of a transition in Syria. He coupled this with "unprecedented sanctions to deepen the financial isolation of the regime". Shortly thereafter his efforts were matched with similar moves by many European allies.

Some hawks in Washington have criticised the American administration for not acting sooner, but they are dead wrong.

The Obama administration's policy to date has been appropriate. America can ratchet up pressure, impose sanctions, speak out in defence of freedom and coordinate strategies with allies, but it should not assume a broader role by directly intervening. After two reckless and failed wars in the region, and a history of callous disregard for Palestinian rights, the US is not in a position to lead in Syria. Most Syrians (and most Arabs, in general) would reject such a US-led role.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution or path forward. What is clear, however, is that the situation in Syria has reached the point where the Arab world can and must respond. It is unacceptable for the current situation to go unchecked and equally problematic for Arabs to appear powerless while mass atrocities continue to be committed. While Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have recalled ambassadors to Syria, so far the Arab response has been muted.

Back when the Arab League suspended Libya's membership, it seemed unimaginable that any other Arab government would pursue policies that would force it, too, to become an outcast state. But it appears that the regime in Damascus has done just that.

The Arab League should condemn the Assad regime and promptly suspend its membership in the organisation, declaring that the regime has forfeited the right to play a role in Syria’s and the region’s future.

While this step will not, by itself, bring about an end to the violence or pave the way for a managed transition of power, it will further isolate and expose the regime. And because the current opposition is not ready to take control of the country, the Arab League could join with Turkey in convening a conference of Syrian stakeholders to help prepare them for transition, offering to provide the resources and hands-on support needed.

It is especially important that in convening this conference an effort be made to involve all segments of Syrian society, creating a national dialogue that will assure religious and ethnic minorities that their rights as equal citizens in the Syria of tomorrow are secure.

Some worry that steps of this sort may embolden Iran to play a more active and supportive role in Syria. But Iran and its surrogates are already backing and investing in the regime.

It is Syria's people who have no regional patron. They need a strong and dramatic display of support from their Arab brethren. The sooner they receive the support and backing they deserve, the better.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

Published: August 21, 2011 04:00 AM


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