By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
It is anybody’s guess what the final report of the Arab League’s observers’ mission to Syria, to be submitted on Thursday, will conclude. Dispatched in accordance with an Arab peace plan to end more than 10 months of bloodshed, the mission has been highly criticized by Syrian opposition and Western countries as an utter failure. At least 400 people are believed to have been gunned down by the army and pro-regime militias since Arab observers arrived to Syria almost a month ago. And in the view of regime critics, President Bashar Assad’s government has failed to comply with conditions of an agreement it had signed with the Arab League to withdraw the army from cities, stop killing peaceful protesters and release thousands of detainees.
Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al-Arabi has defended the monitors’ mission and asked for more time. On Monday the Damascus government released few hundred prisoners in compliance with a general amnesty issued by President Assad a day before. And according to the government most of those who perished in the past days were killed by armed infiltrators and terrorists and not by the Syrian Army.
Arab foreign ministers will decide the future of the observers’ mission on Sunday. But Qatar, which is leading Arab diplomatic efforts, has already criticized the regime for failing to abide by previous accords. Few days ago the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani suggested that his country will support an initiative to dispatch an Arab peacekeeping force to Syria. And his Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim was in Washington a week ago to discuss, among other things, what next steps are needed in Syria. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told him that Arab observers cannot stay in Syria forever.
The Arab League will have to decide whether to extend the observers’ mission or seek a fresh approach. The Arab peacekeeping proposal is a nonstarter simply because President Bashar Assad, who made two rare public appearances, last week, does not appear to trust the Arab League or its motives.
Despite Western criticism and Arab League pressure President Assad remains defiant and in control. He has vowed to resist and defeat armed infiltrators, scorned the Arab League, challenged the West, but he committed himself, again, to political reforms and starting a dialogue with his opponents. He has presented a road map for reforms; a referendum on a new constitution, no later than March, to be followed by general multiparty elections in June or even before. While the opposition, both at home and abroad, has belittled such moves, it must be said that Assad’s recent proposals could eventually work in his favor. On the ground the picture looks gloomy. The Syrian Army and regime loyalists continue to crack down on protesters, killing and injuring many on daily basis, but the uprising shows no signs of abating. Most of Homs is out of control and the picture is repeated in Idlib in the north, Aleppo in the northeast and in Derra in the south. There are reports that anti-regime protests are now taking place few kilometers away from Damascus, in nearby Zabadani and other hamlets and towns not far from the capital.
The regime has suffered some moral losses as well. Army generals and key officials have joined the opposition in recent weeks. The Free Syria Army is getting bigger and stronger. But all of this is not enough to defeat the regime, which still commands a regular army and a sophisticated security apparatus. In addition Assad can still count on Russian, Chinese and Iranian political and military support. Ten months after anti-regime protests broke out it remains difficult to answer the most important question: How long will Assad resist? The truth of the matter is that it could take months and maybe years. The Syrian uprising is different from that of Tunis, Egypt or Libya. In fact, there is the possibility that the regime could survive, but only if President Assad’s latest gambit to deliver high-stake political reforms materializes. On the one hand he has the Baath Party, the middle class and the Alawite community, and other sectarian minorities, behind him. Fear of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of secular Syria is genuine among many Syrians, while the notion of a foreign conspiracy, led by Qatar and the Americans, to divide Syria resonates with some, including in the Arab world.
Unless the Syrian issue is internationalized, the Damascus regime appears capable of withstanding external pressure. Its tenacity has been proven many times. On the other hand Syria seems to appreciate the changing international realities; the US is busy with its presidential elections, Europe is occupied with its economic crisis and Russia and China will make sure that its file does not reach the UN Security Council.
That will leave the Arab League with fewer options. It may choose to extend the mission of Arab observers to buy some time, or it may pull its monitors from Syria and break contact with Damascus for the time being. No matter what happens, the regime’s immediate concerns will be to give the army and militias the time they need to quash the protests, albeit at a great human cost. How long can the people resist the onslaught remains an open question. And how would the promised reforms, if they go through, influence the general mood, is anyone’s guess. The regime is not beaten yet and the final outcome of the Syrian uprising may frustrate many!
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.