Arab League Demands Syrian President Stand Down As Civil War Takes Hold
Arab League foreign ministers today (23 July) called on Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to stand down immediately, offering him safe passage out of Syria as an incentive.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
In calling for Assad to go now, the Arab League is attempting to hasten an end to the fighting and contain the escalating regional effects of the civil conflict in Syria.
However, Assad has long since given up listening to the League meaning the call will go unheeded and the violence will continue.
As long as the regime retains the support of the elite units of the army and security forces, there is little reason to currently suppose that it will simply give up the fight and allow the rebels to win.
Whether Bashar al-Assad envisioned the end of Baathist rule in Syria becoming reminiscent of the collapse of Colonel Muammar al-Qadhafi's Great Libyan Jamahiriya may never be known, but that is the way his country is heading at the moment, albeit in a far less certain and perhaps predictable manner. Following the devastating 18 July bomb attack in Damascus that claimed the lives of Assef Shawkat, General Daoud Rajiha, Hassan Turkomani and Hisham Ikhtiar, the Assad regime has been rocked to its very foundations and dealt a blow from which it is still struggling to recover.
Amid this confusion, the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) and loosely affiliated armed rebel Islamist groups have sensed the first genuine weaknesses within the regime. Supported by their foreign patrons in Turkey, the West and, perhaps most significantly in terms of material assistance, the Gulf, they have sought to exploit the 18 July attack with repeated offensives in the regime strongholds of Damascus and Aleppo as well as numerous other places across Syria.
Media reports today said fighting was ongoing in the Dumar, Barzeh, Qabun, Jobar, Kfar Sousa, Midan, Qazzaz, Tadamon, Hajar al-Aswad and Sitt Zeinab suburbs of the capital, while local FSA commanders talked confidently of "liberating" Aleppo and using it a as base from which to launch attack against government forces in Damascus and the rest of the country—in effect 'a Syrian Benghazi'.
Smoke rises over Damascus on 19 July as opposition
Regime attacks have continued and the rebels still appear hampered in their ability to hold territory for any prolonged period of time without the strong support of the local populace. In this respect, the battle for control of Aleppo could prove a key turning point in the conflict.
Arab League Offer
Into this political and military maelstrom the Arab League has once again attempted to tread, with the organisation's foreign ministers today demanding that Assad stand down immediately—sweetening the call with an offer of safe passage for him and his family out of Syria. The government has made no official response to the offer, and neither is it expected to. Syria has been suspended from the League since November 2011 and has effectively refused to have meaningful relations with the organisation, despite the short-lived deployment of an Arab League monitoring mission to Syria in December 2011. This was replaced by a UN mission in January amid acrimony within the League about how best to proceed with a unified policy against Syria with Lebanon and Iraq—the two countries most directly affected by the fighting in Syria—opposing Gulf Arab states' attempts to follow a hardline approach.
Since then, Arab League diplomatic activity has fallen into abeyance, with the suspicion among many regional observers that certain Arab states, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, had abandoned diplomacy in favour of arming opposition fighters. Anecdotal evidence since provided by media organisations would appear to bear out this conclusion, with well-armed Islamist groups now reported to be making inroads against regime forces. Syrian state media reported on 23 July the military had killed "terrorists" from Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan, claiming they were mercenaries funded by external powers. Many Gulf states view the conflict in Syria as a decisive opportunity to push back Iranian influence in the region and are effectively fighting a proxy war against the Iranian government in Syria, even if others do not necessarily see the conflict in those terms.
Perhaps implicit in the Arab League offer to Assad is a desire to highlight the very few options that the Syrian leader currently has open to him. Also implicit may be an attempt to drive a wedge between Bashar al-Assad—still seen by many in the West and the Arab world as an essentially weak but rational leader—and other family and regime strongmen who may regard the president in similar terms but are preserving him in his position while they attempt to operate behind the scenes. While these figures—senior among whom is Bashar's brother Maher—retain control of key army and security forces, the fighting is unlikely to end soon. Whether they have yet to envisage an end to themselves or the regime in the style of Qadhafi remains to be seen.
The problem for Assad though is that any veneer of respectability and rationality disappeared many months ago and he is deeply complicit in the atrocities that have taken place in his country. In this he arguably remains something of a tragic, albeit profoundly unsympathetic, figure who is too weak to either impose himself or break free of the regime he purports to lead. In this respect, he appears doomed to whatever fate the regime has in store for itself.
Outlook and Implications
Assad's fate may indeed currently appear to echo that of Qadhafi, but Syria is not Libya and the Syrian opposition does not have the support or cohesion of its Libyan counterparts. This suggests that the fighting has some way to go, and should the regime fall in the near future, the fighting to claim the spoils could be much more dangerous and problematic than anything yet produced by the Arab Spring. In this context, Arab League calls for the Syrian opposition to form a transitional government have gone the way of countless other international demands that they finally unite and sort out their differences. The regime though will continue to exploit these divisions and popular fears of a Salafist takeover of Syria to rally support. There remain enough Syrians deeply worried about what the removal of the regime will mean to prolong support for Assad, but this appears an increasingly fragile base on which the regime can rely upon. The conflict may indeed have entered a new phase, but it is still too early to predict the imminent collapse of Baathist rule in Syria.
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