A protest against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Reuters
The Arab League’s much-heralded meeting to review the “progress” of its monitoring operation in Syria came and went on Sunday with barely a whimper. A few more monitors will be sent but unless Syria agrees to an extension, which seems unlikely, the mission will end on 19 January with the presentation of a report.
It’s difficult to see where the league can go from there, except by admitting failure and passing its files to the United Nations.
When the Assad regime accepted the league’s peace plan last month, after weeks of prevarication, it agreed to end the violence against peaceful protests, withdraw the army from towns, release political prisoners and start a dialogue with the opposition. The ill-prepared monitors were then sent in to assess its compliance.
The regime’s insincerity about this was never in much doubt. Apart from some token gestures it has made no real effort to comply, and the killings and arrests have continued. At the same time, though, the presence of monitors does seem to have emboldened the protesters and helped to keep Syria in the headlines.
Despite all that, the failure of the Arab League’s initiative may be preferable to its success. Had there been more progress, the result would have been protracted talks about political “reform”.
The fact is that the Syrian regime cannot reform – at least, not to the extent that would be required – without destroying its own support base. Negotiating with the regime at this late stage would not lead to a workable solution. It would simply create a diversion and throw President Assad a temporary lifeline.
That, more or less, is what has already happened in Yemen where the Gulf Cooperation Council’s “transition” plan has stymied a revolution. Though the “transition” may result in President Saleh leaving office and being confined to the sidelines, its overall effect is to prevent radical change by preserving the status quo.
Considering that the Yemen plan was orchestrated by one of the world’s most autocratic and conservative countries, Saudi Arabia, nobody should be surprised by the results. Nor should anyone expect that the Arab League – still, in essence, a dictators’ club noted for an inability to get its act together – can do any better in bringing change to Syria.
Lack of headway on the diplomatic front inevitably leads to talk of military action – a course also favoured by some of the Syrian opposition. One recent report, from the Washington Institute, looks at a variety of options (including a no-fly zone) while another, from the Henry Jackson society, favours creating a safe haven in the north of Syria.
While both reports favour military intervention, neither makes a particularly convincing case. They both acknowledge considerable risks and the Washington Institute’s report ends rather feebly by saying military intervention “should be carefully considered, not avoided altogether”. If this is the most that two thinktanks with neocon tendencies can come up with, then it’s probably a non-starter.
Although the arguments about protecting civilians during the Libyan uprising can also be applied to Syria, there are major differences in terms of practicalities. The opposition Syrian National Council explains them in a report which urges the US and its allies to “consider carefully the potential costs and unintended consequences of further intervention in Syria”.
The reality, harsh as it may be, is that there is very little that outsiders can usefully do to help the Syrian uprising beyond isolating the Assad regime as much as possible. This does not mean the revolution is doomed but it does mean the protesters will have to depend mainly on their own resources. In the long run, that could be beneficial if it eventually produces a government that is self-reliant and relatively independent of foreign influences.
The cost in human lives is certainly high, and it could get worse. But beneath the surface, the picture is shifting gradually but surely in the protesters’ direction. The regime is in deepening financial trouble and its authority is crumbling. As Syria watcher Joshua Landis noted on his blog:
“What we are witnessing … is not the clash of two titanic and centralised bodies: the state and the opposition. Instead, we are seeing the steady erosion of state authority and national institutions, as the opposition, which remains largely organised on a local basis, undermines central authority at many points.”
The question is no longer whether the regime will fall, but when.