The behavior of the Syrian regime toward its own people is intolerable. Since March, some 3,500 demonstrators have been killed according to UN estimates and untold numbers have been tortured and imprisoned. Governments should be the servants of their citizens, not the other way around; a truism that Arab peoples who have been living under oppressive systems are coming to recognize.
Because foreign journalists are barred from reporting within Syria, it is impossible for the outside world to gauge how much support President Bashar Assad enjoys. If he truly believes the protesters are troublemakers or tools of foreign powers, all he has to do is call free and fair elections. His reluctance to do so indicates how desperate he is to cling onto power and his readiness to allow his country to go down with him just as Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein were.
Syria’s friends in the Arab world have pulled out all the stops to find a peaceful resolution. Assad has paid lip service to the Arab League's proposals but has promptly continued on the same destructive, perhaps even suicidal, path. Arab leaders have now taken the moral high ground and distanced themselves.
On Saturday, 18 member countries voted for Syria’s suspension from the League (Lebanon and Yemen voted against, Iraq abstained). The decision was wise. The Syrian regime, which prides itself on its Arab nationalist credentials, has been shamed and may be hit in the pocket should the League follow through with economic sanctions — although not severely as business would no doubt be conducted via Lebanon and Iraq in the same way China renders sanctions on North Korea toothless.
Isolating Syria diplomatically and economically will surely pile pressure on Assad to do the right thing, but it's unlikely to be enough. If not, what should happen next?
At a time when the US and its allies are champing at the bit to punish Syria, its suspension from the Arab League might be construed by the West as the Arabs' blessing to take Syria along the same route as Libya. While it's true that achieving a UN Security Council resolution to use military force “to protect Syrian civilians” (read regime change) will be problematic due to objections from China and Russia, the US could conceivably lead an Iraq-style “coalition of the willing.”
There may be some who feel that wouldn’t be such a bad thing when, after all, the Libyan adventure has turned out to be somewhat of a success story, depending, of course, what tomorrow holds. But those itching for a repeat performance should understand that any attack on Syria would have disturbing unintended consequences.
In the first place, the region would be splintered and weakened with the US and Israel reaping the benefits. If Damascus were taken out of the equation, Hezbollah would be cut off from its supplies of weapons and funding that are largely channeled through Syria. When the hard-line Israeli government is currently mulling strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities egged on by senior US Republicans, many Israelis are deterred by the thought of Syrian and/or Hezbollah rockets raining down on their cities in concert with Tehran's. From their perspective, rendering Syria and Hezbollah impotent would be a godsend paving the way for a US-backed Israeli attack on Iran.
Secondly, an Arab world in turmoil would leave the Palestinians without even the minimal clout and bargaining power they “enjoy” today. Take away the threat of Damascus and Tehran and Israel would be free to do its worst while Hamas would disintegrate through lack of arms and financial backing.
In other words, the current Middle Eastern power paradigm would be altered for decades to come with Israel walking off with the spoils and Washington consolidating its regional sphere of influence which is being eroded by the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, not to mention an increasingly fractious relationship with Turkey and Pakistan.
Moreover, serious Israeli or Western threats toward Syria are likely to rally all Syrians, including dissenters, behind the regime. Faced with attack or invasion, military officers will unify in a spirit of patriotism to protect their wives and children and maintain their country's sovereignty. The Syrian people are known to be proud and fiercely nationalistic; most are likely to feel that democracy can wait.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem says, “The decision of the Arab League to suspend Syria represents a dangerous step.” He says his country will not budge and promises that it will emerge even stronger. However, he rules out Western military intervention out of reliance on Syria's allies China and Russia. He shouldn't be overly confident on that score when recent history tells us that those powers will hesitate before deciding to face-off against the US and its friends in Europe when push comes to shove. It's notable too that Syria featured on the Pentagon’s target list in 2001 along with Iraq, Iran and others.
All America needs is a strong pretext besides the humanitarian issue that would bring much of the international community on side. Interestingly, this may already be in the cooking process. In recent weeks, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been ratcheting up suspicions that Syria has ambitions for nuclear weapons technology citing constructions on Syrian soil resembling a now defunct uranium enrichment facility in Libya allegedly built under the supervision of Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan. In June, the IAEA took Syria to the UN Security Council over concerns about a covert Syrian nuclear program which Damascus denies. In tandem, the IAEA is throwing accusations against Tehran for pursuing a nuclear weapons capability since 2003. Anyone experiencing déjà vu?
The Arab League must find away to handle the situation in Syria on its own terms and must tell foreign powers to stay clear of the Arab family’s business. Opening the door to a US-led coalition or NATO would be tantamount to placing the Syrians, the Lebanese and the Palestinians under the Israeli boot. Syria may be temporarily divorced from the Arab League but it must not be abandoned to those howling on its doorstep.
The writer is a prominent columnist at The Arab News, where this article was first published on Nov. 19, 2011.