Syrian duplicity reveals another useful weakness

Al Assad has spent the last of his credibility, and shown that he is desperate for any international support he can find.

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Hours after Damascus told the Arab League that it had agreed to end the violence against protesters, security forces shot 20 civilians dead. For anyone who has been following the situation in Syria over the past seven months, it was not too surprising. But the episode showed how difficult it will be to negotiate any solution in Syria.

At the prodding of the Arab League, President Bashar Al Assad said on Wednesday that he would pull the army out of the cities and enter into dialogue with the opposition. Whether anyone believed him or not, his first public concession to outside pressure was notable because it showed that he was running out of options.

It did not, however, make even an inch of progress towards ending the bloodshed. As we have noted before in these pages, Mr Al Assad's decision to send tanks into the streets made his position precarious almost from the start. The majority of the opposition demands nothing less than his departure and the Arab League peace proposal calling for a negotiated transition fell far short of that goal. The opposition escalated with larger protests and the regime fell back to its remaining strength - Russian-made bullets.

Damascus is caught in a pincer. By this time even the Assads have to realise that violence is ultimately a losing strategy. Last week, Mr Al Assad told Moscow's Rossiya 1 TV that he was "counting on" Russia. That also helps to explain his lip service to the Arab League proposal. After Russia's veto of UN sanctions against Syria in early October, Moscow gave Damascus an informal one-month grace period to curb the bloodshed. Agreeing, in word at least, to the Arab League was a half-step in that direction.

But it also extinguishes anyone's lingering faith about Mr Al Assad's credibility. The Arab League has given him a two-week deadline and, assuredly, he will offer more words in the meantime. The group's secretary general, Nabil El Arabi, warned yesterday of "disastrous consequences" for the region but so far has shown little inclination to intervene. For the welfare of its own members, the League should consider more than just statements of condemnation. Even the Russians are being embarrassed by the murders and moving towards cutting ties with the regime.

Arab nations, especially GCC states, can push China, India and Russia to pressure the Assads to halt the violence. As last week showed, diplomacy alone seems unlikely to prevail. But day by day, Mr Al Assad sees his options dwindle, and it's in everyone's interest if that last day comes as soon as possible.