9 November 2011
Rime Allaf
(Former Chatham House Expert)


On 6 November, the first day of Eid Al-Adha, Syrian regime forces were filmed firing heavily and indiscriminately at unarmed civilians in Qaboun, Damascus. While this isn’t the first time the regime has waged war on a civilian population during holy days, it is the first time this happened so soon after the public acceptance of an initiative to end the stalemate. The Arab League sponsored peace plan, accepted by the regime, stipulated that it had to withdraw its armed forces, release all prisoners of conscience, allow international media and monitors into the country, and begin a Cairo-based dialogue with Syrian opposition.

Eight months into the uprising, and after repeated pleas from governments and international organizations alike, the Arab League is the only entity which has managed to get a reaction of sorts from the Syrian regime thus far. For all the scorn and derision Arabs usually reserve for the organization, the Arab League has become a crucial player with regards to unfolding events in Syria. It may yet prove to be a critical element in the probable isolation of the Syrian regime.

Heavyweight supporters of the Syrian regime, such as Russia and China, are running out of patience, after the regime's apparent misunderstanding that their veto on a strong Security Council resolution did not equate a carte blanche in how they handled the uprising. The Assad regime has miscalculated, as it often does, its own room for manoeuvre by turning more Syrians against it, losing significant allies such as Turkey and Qatar, destroying the rekindled relationship with several European countries, and realizing that it cannot depend on Iran alone – it is now stuck in a corner. 

The regime has spent the last eight months claiming, unconvincingly, that there was a dangerous foreign conspiracy aimed at sowing chaos in the country; nevertheless, it has suddenly accepted an initiative which clearly supports the narrative and the demands of the protestors and the opposition, thereby admitting that the conspiracy theory is inexistent, and, more importantly, that it needs the relative support of the Arab world.

This doesn’t mean that the Assad regime intends to abide by this plan: on the contrary, it still continues to say one thing and do another. Violence has increased, particularly in Homs over the four days of the Eid holiday. Many Syrians have condemned the Arab League for its naïveté in initially granting President Assad a two-week period to comply with the plan’s stipulations. Representatives from the newly-formed Syrian National Council (SNC) met with Arab League Secretary General Nabil Araby to relay their demands in the wake of these intensified attacks.

It is improbable that the Arab League expected Syria to uphold its commitment to the plan, but it did hope for at least a modicum of actions which could be taken as a first step in a long process to diffuse the stalemate, especially when most in the Syrian opposition are demanding the League’s intervention in securing protection for civilians from the regime’s attacks.

The perspective of the broad opposition varies little amongst different groups, reflecting the minimum demand of the revolutionaries, namely the fall of the regime, keeping civilian protests united and peaceful, and rejecting foreign military intervention. This has been well-publicized through the SNC, and reactions to the Eid address of its president, Burhan Ghalioun, have been overwhelmingly positive. 

This is why the Syrian regime has desperately been seeking a partner which calls itself opposition but which would be agreeable to a dialogue on so-called reform, rather than negotiating the dismantling of the regime. The Arab League, which has agreed to a meeting on 9 November at the request of non-SNC opposition individuals, could be instrumental in hastily arranging such a dialogue.

Even with such a volte-face and the help of dialogue-friendly opponents, however, the Assad regime would merely be buying itself more time and trying, again, to eradicate the uprising instead of making significant concessions to placate an angry population. If the last eight months are any indication, the intransigent Syrian regime merely seems to be digging an even bigger hole for itself. Unless immediate changes are made it is increasingly probable that the Arab League may suspend Syria’s membership and defer the Syria issue to the UN Security Council. 

Refusing to abide by the plan of the inept Arab League and insisting on the folly of its own self-destructive violence has put the Syrian regime in a very unique position: it has provided the League with the power to decide on whether it remains engaged with the rest of the Arab world, or whether it becomes isolated, regionally and beyond.