Wissam Keyrouz, AFP
Last updated: 3 November, 2011

Arabs throw lifeline to Syria’s embattled Assad

The Arab League plan accepted by Damascus to end the bloodshed in Syria is a life raft for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as it sets no real deadlines and stipulates no implementation mechanisms, analysts say.

“The Arab countries are trying to save one of their pillars from falling, and it’s not clear that they seek to save the Syrian people,” said London-based analyst Abdulwahab Badrkhan.

Syrian troops killed seven people in the flashpoint central city of Homs on Thursday, a human rights group said, just one day after Damascus pledged to withdraw its forces from protest centres under the plan.

The Arab initiative may allow Assad’s regime to “manoeuvre for a long time in an attempt to ease the pressure it has come under,” said Badrkhan.

Salam Kawakibi, director of research at the Arab Reform Initiative Centre, agrees that the Arab League “represents Arab regimes and aims at protecting them” adding that there are certain points in the plan “which are not very clear.”

Under the hard-won deal announced at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo late on Wednesday, the Syrian government is supposed to withdraw its troops from all protest centres, although the text set no timetable.

The blueprint agreed by Syria provides for a “complete halt to the violence to protect civilians.”

It calls for the “release of people detained as a result of the recent events, the withdrawal of forces from towns and districts where there have been armed clashes, and the granting of access to the Arab League, and Arab and international media.”

But Kawakibi said that “the withdrawal of armed forces might simply mean the withdrawal of the army, while the security forces and (pro-regime) “shabiha” militiamen also play a major role in the repression.”

The plan also calls for national dialogue without specifying a venue, a bone of contention between the government, which insists on Damascus, and the opposition which says it should be outside Syria.

Badrkhan says “the Arab League does not have a mechanism to implement its initiative or to force the Syrian regime to implement it.”

Salman Shaikh, director of Brookings Doha Center seems doubtful that the Syrian regime will comply to the initiative.

“The track record of the regime shows that they are not going to comply with these far-reaching demands,” said Shaikh.

“Assad had made these promises before, including to (UN chief) Ban Ki-moon, and yet we had thousands of people killed,” he said.

Syrian activists have called for mass demonstrations to test the genuineness of the government’s commitment to the peace blueprint, voicing scepticism about its readiness to rein in a crackdown that the UN says has cost more than 3,000 lives since mid-March.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC), which organised the anti-government protests on the ground, said it doubted “the integrity of the Syrian regime’s acceptance of the points suggested by the Arab League’s initiative.”

“The Syrian regime is using the initiative as a “tactic to buy time… although I suspect that this is eventually going to bring more pressure on Syria,” said Shaikh.

Shaikh, as well as Badrkhan, believe that the internationalisation of the Syrian crisis is inevitable.

“The Arab League will have to seek ways to deal with the regime, like suspending its membership, but eventually (the case) will go to the international level,” said Shaikh.

But United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan had ruled out any international intervention in Syria.

“We do not think that there is any party which is willing to internationalise this matter. At least we Arabs don’t,” he said on Tuesday when asked if the Arab League would take the Syrian crisis to the Security Council if their initiative fails.

Saudi columnist Tareq al-Hmayed wrote an editorial in Asharq al-Awsat on Thursday asking: “Is this initiative aimed at saving Bashar al-Assad’s regime?”

However, Shaikh says: “I don’t think the regime can be saved, because the majority of people want the regime toppled.”