Pushing Syria over the brink into collapse

The Arab League pacification plan for Syria is faltering because neither the government nor its opponents are abiding by the deal while the US has intervened with the aim to torpedoing it.

The plan, agreed last week by the League and the regime, calls for an immediate halt to violence,  the release of detainees, withdrawal of the military from residential areas, and freedom of entry and movement for League monitors and international media.  If there is progress within two weeks, the League would initiate dialogue between the government and opposition.

While the League demanded most of the regime, the organisation also called upon the opposition to halt armed attacks on the security forces and supporters of the regime and to agree to talk to the government.The government has not pulled troops and tanks out of cities and towns but has freed 553 prisoners from the thousands held since unrest began in March and proposed an amnesty for men who have taken up arms or deserted the armed forces if they surrender to the police by next weekend.

Blatant interference
However, the Obama administration, which has repeatedly called upon President Bashar al-Assad to stand down, warned against acceptance of the amnesty offer, prompting the Syrian government to accuse Washington of  “blatant interference” in the country's internal affairs. The opposition called the amnesty offer a sham and a trap and appealed to soldiers and officers to defect. Faced with the possible failure of an initiative he has been promoting for several weeks, Arab League chief Nabil El-Araby warned of “catistrophic consequences” and Qatar has called for an emergency League ministerial meeting on Saturday.

What is  happening in Syria?  On one hand, there are genuine protests against a government that has privatised the economy, creating a new class of wealthy businessmen, while the urban and rural poor have been impoverished. These protests have been exploited by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and anti-regime exiles backed by external powers, including Saudi Arabia and the US, with the aim of bringing down a government which is allied to Iran, the chief regional rival of both Riyadh and Washington. The recently  formed Syrian National Council rebuffs dialogue but Building Syria, a movement largely based inside the country, urges unity and proposes talks.

The regime argues, on the other hand, that it faces an armed insurgency supported by outsiders and insists that unrest must be suppressed before major reforms — it admits are essential — can be enacted. The sides are deadlocked: the government cannot crush the protesters and the protesters and allied armed elements cannot oust the regime. Consequently, some opposition factions have appealed for external military intervention although a majority of Syrians and Western powers reject foreign involvement.

In the view of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), the League plan provides “an opportunity to seek a negotiated transition before the conflict takes an even uglier turn.”  The ICG urges the government, the opposition and the international community to endorse the League plan and give “Damascus a genuine opportunity to live up to its commitments” in order to stave off full-scale civil war which would be a disaster for West Asia.

Writing in the Guardian of London, former European Union regional adviser Alastair Crooke argued that Syria’s troubles stem from Sunni Saudi Arabia’s determination to oust the Assad regime in order to weaken Syria’s allies in Shia Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbollah movement. The Saudis expect a Syrian successor regime to be dominated by the country’s Muslim Brotherhood and ultraorthodox Sunni elements who have been unleashed by the Arab Spring in Syria, Tunisia and Egypt, creating a militant Sunni current in the region to counter the radical Shia current promoted by Iran.

Crooke does not mention, however, that the west and Saudi Arabia have for decades formed a common front against non-aligned pan-Arab secular regimes, like those in Egypt (1952-70), Iraq (1958-2003), Algeria and Syria. Algeria’s regional ambitions were tamed by a decade-long conflict 1991-2001) with religious fundamentalists, leaving Syria the sole survivor of the secular pan-Arab nationalist camp.These revolutionaries generally adhere to the secular pan-Arab model while putting forward the demands for multi-party democracy, clean governance and imposition of the rule of law.

 So far, the Syrian armed and security forces have remained loyal to the regime, the middle class in Damascus and Aleppo has  failed to join in the protests, and protesters have not been able to muster the hundreds of thousands who brought down former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. However, violence between majority Sunnis and minority Shia Alawites is on the rise and sanctions are wrecking the economy, threatening to push Syria over the brink into political and financial collapse.

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