Syrian Uprising: Arab League acts on Damascus

RSIS presents the following commentary Syrian Uprising: Arab League acts on Damascus by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

No. 167/2011 dated 15 November 2011
Syrian Uprising:
Arab League acts on Damascus
By James M. Dorsey


The Arab League has moved towards action to halt the brutal crackdown on 
 anti-government protesters in Syria. It has taken decisions to lay the ground for
United Nations action against the Assad regime and strengthen calls for 
international intervention to stop the bloodshed.


ARAB LEAGUE foreign ministers have given Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad a
three-day window to halt the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters, 
failing which they will take the matter to the United Nations. The League’s moves 
aim to prevent Syria sliding into civil war following increased fighting between the 
Syrian armed forces and significant numbers of military defectors, as well as 
mounting sectarian violence. The government crackdown has incurred 3,500 dead 
and thousands more wounded among the protesters, particularly in the city of Homs, 
a focal point of the eight-month old revolt against the Assad regime.

The League’s suspension of Syrian membership and decision to consult with the 
UN signal to the embattled Syrian leader that time is running out for his regime. 
It also puts on notice opponents of UN sanctions against Syria, particularly 
UN Security Council members Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, that 
their refusal to back Western efforts to tighten the screws on the Syrian regime 
can no longer count on regional support for Assad to resolve the crisis with brute 
force. That is an attempt that has so far failed in the face of the protesters’
remarkable resilience and which the Arab League’s moves will make more 
difficult, if not impossible, for world and regional powers to tolerate.

Civil war looms large

Regionally, increased Arab League pressure and willingness to take the issue to
the UN on humanitarian grounds can weaken Iran’s unconditional support for 
Assad, Iran’s foremost Arab ally. It strengthens those in Iran who believe that 
such support has increased the Islamic republic’s isolation from the region 
and prevented it from being part of a regional or international solution, 
notwithstanding recent Iranian calls for a halt to the bloodshed.

The spectre of a civil war in Syria with potential fallout in neighbouring 
countries increases pressure on opponents of international efforts to achieve 
a halt to the Syrian crackdown. It also will strengthen calls for and add pressure 
on the United States and Europe to consider military intervention despite 
their reluctance and distraction with their economic woes.  To be sure, the Arab 
League explicitly ruled out international military intervention in Syria.

Meanwhile, Syrian assertions that the regime is confronting an armed rebellion 
rather than peaceful anti-government protests are becoming a self-fulfilling 
prophecy. They are said to have the covert support of Saudi funding for arms 
purchases in Lebanon and Turkey and tacit Turkish support for the Free Syrian 
Army made up of Syrian military defectors that is encamped on the Turkish side 
of the Syrian border.

The sense of Syria teetering on the brink of civil war is heightened by mounting 
signs of sectarian violence particularly in Homs, a predominantly Sunni Muslim 
city with a significant minority of Christians and Alawites, who have supported 
Assad. The battle lines in Homs between protesters and Assad’s forces are 
believed to have been blurred by the targeting of people accused of assisting the 
regime as well as its military and militias. Some 100 people have reportedly been 
killed in Homs in recent tit-for-tat inter-communal killings.

By increasing pressure on Assad, the Arab League is also pushing Syrian 
opposition forces to get their act together. The invitation to Syrian opposition 
groups to meet with the League in Cairo constitutes an effort to force them to 
form a unified front. The absence of such a front has in some ways helped 
Assad because of the lack of a clear opposition leadership and uncertainty 
about who might come to power if Assad were driven from office.

Sanctions start to bite

Finally, the League’s  threat to impose sanctions  if Assad fails to halt the 
crackdown within the three-day timeline significantly tightens the screws 
just when  Western economic sanctions are being felt in Syria with the 
threat of a freeze on Arab investments and on assets of Assad associates 
in the Gulf. It would further make it difficult for countries like Russia, China 
and India to ignore Western and reject UN sanctions and continue to conduct 
business as usual with Syria.

Oil majors Shell and Total have reduced oil production in Syria because 
of the sanctions and in an indication of fiscal constraints Syria has stopped 
paying the two companies. Arab League sanctions increase the likelihood 
that the European Union will expand its sanction regime by making 
it illegal for international firms to maintain oil and gas investments in Syria. 
This would not only affect Shell and Total but also Canada’s Suncor Energy,
Britain’s Petrofac, India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp and the China National 
Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

Nonetheless, despite the Arab League’s decision to finally put Assad on the 
mat and substantially increase pressure on him, there seems no immediate 
solution that will halt the bloodshed and help bring Syria back from the brink. 
Assad has painted himself into a corner with the brutality of his crackdown 
and failure to live up to his own promises, and many in the opposition are 
unwilling to consider an exit that would keep him in office. He has given no 
indication of being willing to leave and has warned that the fallout of 
intervention to remove him would shake the region to its core.

That could also be true if full-fledged civil war erupts, which seems 
inevitable if the crackdown continues and probably even if it is halted 
but Assad remains in office. The only solution is Assad’s departure; the 
question is at what cost that will be achieved in terms of Syrian lives 
and regional stability.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of 
International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.  
He has been a journalist covering the Middle East for over 30 years.

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