The Arab League's potent sting has stunned Damascus

Bashar Al Assad's regime thought it had neutralised the threat posed by other Arab states and their monitors. It was wrong, Phil Sands, Foreign Correspondent, reports.

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Bashar Al Assad's regime thought it had neutralised the threat posed by other Arab states and their monitors. It was wrong, Phil Sands, Foreign Correspondent, reports

DAMASCUS // A month after Arab League observers arrived in Syria, the authorities in Damascus believed they had blunted any threat posed by the mission - and the league - to Bashar Al Assad's rule.

On Sunday night, that belief was demolished when Arab foreign ministers, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, lined up behind a timetabled plan aimed at removing the president from power.

According to the blueprint, the Syrian regime and the opposition should sit down for league-mediated talks within two weeks. Within two months, Mr Al Assad would be required to transfer power to his moderate, politically astute deputy, Farouk Al Shara, who would work with a national unity government to draft a new constitution and arrange free and fair presidential elections.

"The new Arab initiative adopted by the foreign ministers envisages the peaceful departure of the Syrian regime," said the Qatari premier Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani. He said it was similar to the deal in Yemen, which resulted in Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down as president.

However, while the Yemeni autocrat left on Sunday with a promise of immunity from prosecution, no mention was made of the Syrian leader's being able to expect the same treatment.

The plan mirrors proposals by opposition groups inside Syria, who have held meetings with the league and with diplomats from the West, Russia, China and Iran.

These activists believe Arab states have an essential role to play in finding a means of transition that will prevent a collapse of the state and, instead, usher in democracy.

Anecdotally, many in the so-called silent majority, who have yet to side with protesters, have been put off in part by fear that any transition will be chaotic and plunge the country into Iraq-style violence.

Opposition groups see Arab League and United Nations guarantees of a well managed transition as crucial in allaying that fear and further isolating Mr Al Assad from the Syrian people.

The Arab League's decision to call openly for the Syrian president's removal clearly shocked the authorities in Damascus, as did its near unanimous nature. Only Lebanon - heavily influenced by Syria - abstained from supporting the proposal. Iraq, a close ally of Iran and Syria, had sat out previous votes against Mr al Assad but this time supported the move, a signal that both Baghdad and Tehran may be looking to a post-Assad future.

In the week running up to Sunday's league meetings in Cairo, Syrian officials had expected a report by monitors to be critical of their conduct and to confirm that the terms of a peace deal agreed by Syria with the league had not been implemented.

But, at the very least, they also knew the observers would confirm the existence of armed groups that Damascus has long said it is fighting, something officials felt certain would be enough to prevent any consensus forming among the league's ministers.

On Sunday evening, that confidence appeared well placed, with the monitors' report mentioning violence by both sides and the league's committee on Syria saying it favoured extending the mission for another month. The news conference announcing as much was shown on Syrian television.

Later that night it was clear things had not gone according to Mr Al Assad's plans, however. The full meeting of the foreign ministers unequivocally called time on his rule. That press conference was not broadcast on Syrian television.

Public response from the Syrian authorities has so far been limited to angry denunciation of interference in its internal affairs and charges of hypocrisy against other unelected Arab leaders.

Walid Moallem, Syria's long-serving foreign minister, is due to hold a news conference this afternoon in which he is expected to announce what concrete actions Damascus will take. One possibility is to end co-operation with the monitors and suspend its dealings with the League.

What he will certainly not be announcing is that Mr Al Assad will accept the league's plan and prepare for his own departure.

In his most recent speech to the nation earlier this month, the Syrian president made it clear he would fight on. He had heavily criticised the Arab League but also said he was willing to cooperate with the group.

Now, however, Arab foreign ministers are moving much farther and faster than he is prepared to accept. A constitutional committee created by the Syrian president as part of his reform programme has said it is still "too early" to talk about limiting presidential terms of office - let alone entertaining the idea of Mr Al Assad's no longer ruling the country.

Similarly, officials have hinted that they will establish a national unity government of some kind, but even very moderate critics of the regime - those denounced by activists as "tame opposition" - have not been invited to take part.

"The Arabs have run out of patience with Assad once and for all. They have made their final decision on this. They want him gone," said a Syrian analyst.

"The Syrian regime thought it had outsmarted the Arab League but the opposite has happened and it is running out of room for manoeuvre.

"It is still much too soon to say the regime is finished but its chances of surviving the uprising have just dropped very significantly."