Arab states show their mettle by calling for regime change

Arab states have made it clear that they believe Bashar Al Assad has to go. But will Russia continue to protect the Syrian leader at the Security Council?

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After ignoring the situation in Syria for months, Arab states, it now seems, cannot float enough plans for the country. Two weeks ago the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, called for the deployment of Arab troops to Syria. And last weekend, Arab League foreign ministers asked President Bashar Al Assad to leave office.

The latest Arab scheme is modelled on the plan that the Gulf Cooperation Council presented to resolve the Yemeni crisis. Mr Al Assad would hand over power to his first vice president, leading to the formation of a government of national unity within two months.

This government would implement a broad Arab League plan that, among other things, seeks to end the violence through the withdrawal of the army from cities and the release of prisoners. The transition proposal also outlines a process to elect a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and hold parliamentary elections within six months.

On Tuesday, the Assad regime rejected the transition plan. The opposition Syrian National Council, in turn, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, welcomed it, not least the clause about Mr Al Assad's removal. However, the SNC said there could be no negotiations with the regime until the Syrian president stepped down.

Saudi Arabia played a significant role in formulating the proposal, in its capacity as a member, with Oman, of a committee tasked with following up on the Syrian crisis. The Saudis brought the Gulf states on board and collaborated with their occasional rival Qatar, which chairs the Arab League until March. In another sign of its hardening position, the kingdom pulled its nationals out of the Arab League observer mission to Syria, a measure soon followed by its Gulf partners.

Like Sheikh Hamad's demand that Arab forces be deployed to Syria, the transition project represents a radically new dimension in Arab diplomacy. Neither may prevent a further escalation in Syria. Yet for practical purposes, the Arabs have just advocated regime change there, pushed firmly by the Gulf countries, which have the Yemen experience to borrow from. Mr Al Assad's ouster now has an Arab imprimatur, therefore legitimacy, and this cannot be underestimated.

The Arabs also somehow managed to put together a road map towards what they claimed would be a more democratic Syria. This was inevitable, perhaps, in light of developments in Egypt and Tunisia, where constituent assemblies are preparing to undo constitutions that gave considerable latitude to authoritarian leaders. Yet it also represented an innovation for a regional organisation habitually committed to the narrowest interpretation of state sovereignty.

The foreign ministers extended the Arab League monitoring mission. It would have been difficult to do otherwise. The observers symbolise the continued Arab stake in Syria, even as any expectation that they will succeed in their mission, or perhaps even pursue it, is negligible, especially after Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners pulled out.

The novelty in the Arab position aside, where does one go from here? We can now speak of armed conflict in Syria, with what appears to be a considerable swathe of territory outside the effective control of the regime. This explains the Arab sense of urgency, but it also highlights the dangers of ambiguity within the Arab League or discord within the United Nations Security Council. The Arab foreign ministers agreed that the Arab League would inform the Security Council of its support for the transition plan, a potentially far-reaching initiative.

Now that the Arab states have endorsed Mr Al Assad's exit in the name of stability and ending bloodshed, a good case can be made that Syria has become a threat to regional peace and security - therefore in some ways to international peace and security. By informing the Security Council, the Arabs will implicitly request that the world body take matters in hand. Recall that Russia and China affirmed in mid-2011 that Syria did not mandate Security Council consideration, because the tension there was no threat to international peace and security. Now the Arab states are suggesting the contrary.

As the fighting intensifies, the stakes are becoming much more dangerous. No Arab official has mentioned it publicly yet, but there is real anxiety that Mr Al Assad's stubbornness may lead to the de facto break-up of the Syrian state, even if temporarily. Once the leaders of the ruling Alawite community sense that their situation is hopeless, they may conceivably implement a mad venture to pull back to the Alawite heartland and consolidate there. That would not be easy and an Alawite statelet would in all probability not be permanent. But Mr Al Assad and his acolytes are adept at making bad calls. An Alawite fallback strategy could unleash other centrifugal forces, particularly involving the Kurds, alarming Syria's neighbours.

How long Russia can resist Security Council action on Syria is anybody's guess. The Arab decision is not one that Moscow can ignore lightly, nor will a post-Assad Syria quickly forgive the actions of the Russian government. Mr Al Assad is on the way out and even close Syrian allies such as Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas may have reached that conclusion. The merit of the Arab plan is that the Arabs have finally grasped the inevitability of a transformation in Damascus.

The Security Council must take up the Arab proposal, even if that means tightening some of its clauses. Things will get worse before they get better. But only when Mr Al Assad and those around him realise that they're finished, will they act in ways that widen the cracks in Alawite ranks. Few in the community relish dying for the ruling family.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle