December 4, 2011

Syria Ignores Another Counter-Revolutionary Deadline

For the fourth time in a month, the Arab League has issued a “deadline” for Bashar al-Assad to end his crackdown on a growing opposition movement. After giving Syria’s strongman two weeks to sign a favorable proposal - an offer that al-Assad’s security forces promptly shot down - the League waited another week to discuss political and financial consequences. November 26th’s “deadline” rolled into Saturday’s 24-hour “deadline.”

Although both sides are still jockeying for position, accumulating evidence suggests that Syria will ignore the Arab League’s threat with minimal punishment. Reuters observes, “Such deadlines have slipped repeatedly in the past.”

Heralded as “unprecedented” by Western government and media, the Arab League’s sanctions aren’t completely toothless. On top of financial sanctions targeting Syria’s central bank, the League's peace process committee froze the assets of 19 Syrian officials and banned them from traveling amongst Arab countries. The panel also ordered a sub-committee to compose a list of Syrian businessman involved in al-Assad’s crackdown, a measure intended to squeeze them over to the opposition’s side. The number of flights and arms deals with Arab states is scheduled to be reduced by half on December 15th - if Syria’s regime doesn’t comply with the Arab League’s initiative.

Separately, some Western and Arab policymakers believe that increasing the number of international journalists and adding Arab monitors will force al-Assad to tone down his urban offensives. Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told reporters in Amman, "We believe that in full light of monitors and media, the security services reporting to Assad and his clique would not be able to operate the way they are operating now.”

"By allowing the monitors in, by allowing the media in, that's a peaceful way of trying to stop this sustained cycle of violence that Assad seems committed to turning Syria into.”

These measures, however, are insufficient by themselves; Syria’s violence still disseminates to the outside world through a network of internal and external sources. Regime forces and loyalists (Shabeeha or “ghosts”) will express their creativity through alternative suppression. Sanctions from the U.S. and EU are making their effects felt on Syria’s populace, but how many of al-Assad’s supporters cross sides remains to be seen. The Arab League’s limited sanctions can also be subverted through unwavering regional and international allies, along with clever travel arrangements.

As for Arab monitors, they run the risk of turning into al-Assad’s pawns. Syrian activists expect the regime to paint the police as the country’s savior from armed defectors, branded as “terrorists” by al-Assad and his officials. The Free Syrian Army would become a greater liability with the introduction of Arab monitors, and would need to scale back their operations as promised.

Media awareness also loses its edge when paired with favorable political terms for the regime. Contrary to standing with Syria’s opposition or preparing the ground for Western intervention, the Arab League appears to be focused on containing Syria’s political fallout and leaving a shell of al-Assad’s regime in power. While the League’s proposal calls for al-Assad to withdraw his security forces from cities and release thousands of prisoners, the bloc continues to put its faith in a “dialogue” between the regime and opposition. States such as Jordan, Kuwait and Iraq continue to advocate “peaceful engagement;” these states share extensive political and economic ties with Syria.

While negotiations are integral to conflict and conflict management, the trust foundation of Syria’s “dialogue” collapsed months ago. No oppositional demonstrator or foreigner is safe holding an iPhone, let alone protesting in the streets. “Dialogue” functions as a codeword for maintaining power, and the Arab League’s initiative parallels Yemen’s dead-end under the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Furthermore, the Arab League’s proposal also stands a high chance of mimicking the GCC’s immediate use to Ali Abdullah Saleh. As Yemen’s strongman delayed his signature for eight months - and remains in power at this moment - al-Assad has manipulated the Arab League’s diplomacy to stall international action. A senior Qatari official explained that Damascus requested "new clarifications and further amendments to be made to the protocol which was proposed,” as confirmed by Syria’s Foreign Ministry.

“Messages are being exchanged between Syria and the Arab League to reach a certain vision that would facilitate the mission of observers in Syria while preserving Syrian interests and sovereignty,” spokesman Jihad Makdissi told reporters.

The Qatari official claimed that Arab ministers "refused” al-Assad’s latest stalling maneuver, but this political tug-of-war could stretch for months and yield few benefits for the opposition. Flipping to an opposite scenario, the League wishes to avoid internal disciplinary measures and remains open to Syria’s cooperation. Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani clarified, "If the signing does not happen tomorrow, and I doubt it will... if the signing does not happen soon, then the Arab sanctions that have been approved will be in effect.

“If they want to come [and sign] tomorrow they can.”

How long the Arab League can perpetuate its scam in Syria is anyone’s guess, but few international powers are willing to probe the bloc’s contribution to their own counter-revolution.

[Update: Syria's Foreign Ministry "responds positively" to the Arab League's observer request.]

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