Much is being made of the Arab League’s sudden, and belated, baring of teeth in response to the Arab Spring. And it is a big change, even more so in the case of Syria than in the case of Libya. Nobody in the Arab world loved Colonel Gaddafi. President Bashar al-Assad is a different matter.
Not that most Arab governments particularly like the Assad regime in Damascus. Far from it. Its regular rants against monarchies in the Gulf and its close alliance with non-Arab Iran have hardly endeared it to the majority in the League. But it has represented a sort of stability over the last decades, a government which might talk the talk of revolution and the downfall of Israel but, which, when it came to it, kept well this side of any action.
No longer. What is really interesting about the League’s decision yesterday to suspend Syria’s membership is not what will happen but the change in sentiment in the region towards Damascus. After seven months of repression and continued demonstrations, Syria’s neighbours have come to the conclusion that the regime is not going to survive and that they need to distance themselves from its fate.
They may also feel – and some do – that now is the time to nudge the course of events along to prevent the death throes turning into civil war. It may well be too late for that. Yesterday’s attack on a security force’s base near Damascus is a clear indication that the days when this was solely a battle between unarmed protesters and the Syrian security forces are now over.
Army desertions partly account for this. But foreign intervention, it must be said, is also playing a part. Saudi Arabia, or at least the religious establishment there, is said to be arming and supplying the religious factions in the country. At the same time, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the US, which has taken a particularly hard line against the Assad regime, is also giving covert support to its opponents, as may elements in Turkey.
Even without going so far as saying that outside forces are fomenting revolution with arms, the reality is that the West, along with Turkey and now the Arab League, is openly supporting an alternative government in the form of the Syrian National Council.
It’s not the outside world which has brought this about. Once President Assad and his relations decided on a campaign of violent oppression, and then failed to succeed immediately, the situation was bound to deteriorate into mutual violence. What else were the protesters supposed to do? Go on being shot down at will? Of course they’ve resorted to arms and of course they’ve sought outside help.
Isolation and sanctions may do something to weaken the Assad government but they won’t bring it down. We know from the decade of sanctions on Saddam Hussein that they can actually increase the power of the regime by giving it a monopoly of scarce goods. The hope is that the pressure will eventually force the middle class of Damascus and Aleppo to get down from the fence and join the protests. Then it would be very difficult to see the government being able to keep the lid on the situation.
But without that, unfortunately it will be force of arms which brings a conclusion. The conflict has already developed in Homs and other regional centres. The fear now is that not only will the violence escalate but, by the very nature of its localised shape, it will become more tribal and ethnic.
It would be nice to think that the Arab Spring could take place peacefully and democratically. But it is finally about power and, in resorting to tanks and torture, President Assad is bringing about the very outcome which he claims to be defending the country against.