December 20, 2011

Syrian Counter-Revolution Enters New Phase

Bashar al-Assad has victory in his eyes. Riding high on his security forces’ crackdown against pro-democracy protesters and army defectors, Syria’s strongman now holds a sweet political settlement in his hands. Better yet, al-Assad had no need to hop a flight to Cairo (unlike Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, who inked a power-sharing deal in Riyadh), sending his foreign minister to sign in his place.

Syrian protesters and foreign observers appear to be asking two main questions: is al-Assad’s regime planning to cooperate with the Arab League rather than the UN, or stalling for more time? The answer to both questions is yes.

That al-Assad has no reason to reject the Arab League’s offer should serve as an immediate warning. While the block’s proposal calls on Syria’s army to withdraw from hostile cities, a concession that many protesters believe would capitulate the regime, regime change was left out of the League’s equation. al-Assad is only required to engage in dialogue with the opposition. Meanwhile 500 observers have received a one-month mandate that can be extended by another month “if both sides agree.” Nabil Elaraby, the Arab League’s Secretary-General, claims that his monitors can “move freely anywhere in Syria to ensure the implementation of the Arab initiative,” but they will be accompanied (and shadowed) by Syrian authorities.

Foreign Minister Walid Moallem declared, "Syrian sovereignty was preserved in the heart of the protocol.”

Moallem’s signing coincided with a three-day conference organized by Syria’s National Council (SNA). Like many Syrian protesters, the bulk of the SNA remains suspicious of al-Assad’s intentions - except the council may be playing with fire. According to several participants involved in drafting a new political document, the SNA “is readying an offer of immunity and exile to Bashar al-Assad... he can leave the country to a destination of his choosing with full immunity and allow the military to take over in conjunction with the SNC.”

Since this strategy is unlikely to draw extensive support from Syria’s streets, justifying foreign assistance (not necessarily military intervention) appears to be the SNA’s next strategic objective. Its chairman, Burhan Ghalioun, quickly branded the Arab League’s ceremony as "worthless,” and warned that al-Assad’s regime “is maneuvering and wants to buy time.” Precisely, al-Assad is maneuvering around the Arab League to buy time and improve his position.

By agreeing to the Arab League’s proposal, al-Assad isn’t simply stalling through the League or avoiding further UN action - Syria’s regime is exploiting the proposal to reconnect with the bloc. In one of his more blatant statements, Moallem expects “the beginning of cooperation between us and the Arab League, and we will welcome the Arab League observers." Damascus plans to use the League’s monitors to “get out the truth,” viewing them “as an opportunity to prove Syria was battling terrorists.” Moallem, if he is to be believed, successfully amended the League’s proposal to protect Syria’s sovereignty.

He explained how, “coordination with the Syrian government will take place via a national committee that will send reports to both sides which will be discussed before taking any other action according to the protocol and the Syrian amendments.”

Speaking before an Iraqi delegation, al-Assad told his audience that he "dealt positively with proposals presented because it's in (Syria's) interest for the world to know what is happening in Syria."

On its surface, the Arab League’s proposal represents the first tangible step to deescalating Syria’s open violence. Foreign monitors and journalists may be able to push security forces and armed defectors off the streets - but the regime will try its hardest to manipulate them. The League’s deal with al-Assad is, at its core, a settlement between the AL and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Russia, China and Western capitals.

The GCC issued a surprisingly tough statement against al-Assad’s regime, scoring easy political points during its summit in Riyadh, however the bloc continues to follow the League’s maneuvering. Russia’s Foreign Ministry naturally boasted, "Signing the protocol in Cairo guarantees the protection of all Syrians and stability in the country by applying an independent monitoring mechanism.”

Moallem “stressed” that Russia “advised signing the protocol, which Syria did.”

The imperialist nature of Syria’s initiative diminishes any benefits coming near the opposition’s direction. Although the Arab League has yet to cancel its proposed economic sanctions, Moallem expects these to be lifted after Syria “complies” with foreign monitors. He rationalized Syria’s position after the League ignored several of his memos: "we don't entreat anyone… if they think that their sanctions will affect the steadfastness of the Syrian people then they are delusional… they imposed the sanctions and they will lift them, and we won't ask for it again."

Yet Syria remains suspicious of Arab League despite a favorable political deal, deflecting criticism by accusing the bloc itself of stalling (not entirely invalid). Moallem asserted that Damascus “doesn’t fear internationalization as the West and some Arabs' intentions have been revealed,” and flipped the international position by threatening to take Syria’s case to the UN Security Council. al-Assad’s government also organized mass rallies against the Arab League’s proposal.

Western capitals have been sucked into the Arab League’s political vortex amid their quest to open additional sources of pressure on Syria. While Washington, London, Paris and Berlin responded with the same hard-line - actions, not words - they might be stepping too deep into Syria’s counter-revolutionary offensive. The U.S. and EU have thrown their weight behind the Arab League’s proposal, tacitly protecting the regime, and the State Department’s Victoria Nuland unconsciously exposed this reality on Tuesday.

“Just to be clear that there were four aspects to the Arab League program which the Syrians say they are now signed on to, so it’s not just the unfettered access to monitors. It’s also stopping all acts of violence, withdrawing armed elements from populated areas and releasing all political prisoners.”

These limited conditions prompted one journalist to ask, “so you are stepping aside from your attitude that Assad has to step out?” Nuland would respond with a flat “No.” When pressed a second time, the State’s spokeswoman took another moment to articulate, “let me just be clear on behalf of the United States of America. We continue to believe that Asad needs to step aside, that Syria cannot progress with him at the head of the government. And we are concerned that there are delaying tactics here.”

Having covered this angle over the past two months, Washington and Moscow’s behavior continues to leave the door ajar for a political settlement. The two governments recently installed a puppet in Yemen and fully support Bahrain’s monarchy over its opposition movement. Hillary Clinton and her counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, enjoyed a cordial meeting on Tuesday and would likely agree to a consensus replacement for al-Assad.

Syria’s cooperative phase with the Arab League should continue for at least a month, perhaps longer, before breaking down and entering a new counter-revolutionary phase. That leaves Syria’s opposition to fend for itself and accept any foreign assistance available (NATO, Turkey, Libya). While the League’s monitors should be shown a peaceful face, the opposition must devise a strategy to disrupt Syria’s foreign connections and seize the narrative.

al-Assad’s regime cannot be given space or time to maneuver.

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