Syria needs mediation, not a push into all-out civil war
By suspending a country in crisis, the Arab League is giving Assad's regime fewer peaceful ways out of a dangerous corner
17 November 2011
Syria is on the verge of civil war and the Arab League foolishly appears to have decided to egg it on. The spectre is ugly, as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the hawks of the Gulf, are joined by the normally restrained King Abdullah of Jordan in taking sides with opponents of Syria's Assad regime.
Where common sense dictates that Arab governments should seek to mediate between the regime and its opponents, they have chosen instead to humiliate Syria's rulers by suspending them from the Arab League. 
It is no accident that the minority of Arab League members who declined to go along with that decision includes Algeria, Lebanon and Iraq. They are the three Arab countries that have experienced massive sectarian violence and the horrors of civil war themselves. Lebanon and Iraq, in particular, have a direct interest in preventing all-out bloodshed in Syria. They rightly fear the huge influx of refugees that would pour across their borders if their neighbour collapses into civil war.
That war has already begun. The image of a regime shooting down unarmed protesters, which was true in March and April this year, has become out of date. The so-called Free Syrian Army  no longer hides the fact that it is fighting and killing government forces and police, and operating from safe havens outside Syria's borders. If it gathers strength, the incipient civil war would take on an even more overt sectarian turn with the danger of pogroms against rival communities.
Moderate Sunnis in Syria are worried by the increasing militancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis who have taken the upper hand in opposition ranks. The large pro-regime demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo over the past week cannot simply be written off as crowds who were intimidated or threatened with loss of jobs if they did not turn out.
Meanwhile, Syria's large Christian minority cowers in alarm, fearing to share the fate of Iraqi Christians who were forced to flee when sectarian killing heightened the significance of every citizen's religious identity and began to overwhelm non-Muslims too. In northern Syria the Kurds are also nervous about the future. In spite of the regime's long-standing refusal to accept their national rights, most fear the Muslim Brotherhood more.
The Assad regime has made mistake after mistake. Stunned by the first protests this spring, it turned too quickly to force. It blocked international media access and censored its own press and TV, thereby leaving the field free for rumour, exaggeration and the distortions of random footage uploaded on to YouTube. Its offers of dialogue with the opposition were hesitant and seemed insincere. The attacks on Arab embassies in Damascus in recent days were stupid.
As a result, the situation has become increasingly polarised. The regime denounces the externally based opposition, the Syrian National Council which came into existence last month,  as a puppet of foreign governments. For its part the council refuses to talk to the regime, insisting that Assad must go. It has started to call for a no-fly zone and foreign intervention on the Libyan model, both of which are a further incitement to civil war. The internal opposition has not gone so far but may be pushed in that direction if the situation continues to sharpen.
The need now is for international mediation before it is too late, with an agenda for a democratic transition that would include guarantees of status and protection for all minorities, including the Alawites from whom the ruling elite comes. The risk of a vengeful takeover by the Sunni majority is too great.
To demand the Assad family's departure is counter-productive unless an amnesty is offered. Why would they want to cede power peacefully when faced with the precedents of Mubarak (trial and imprisonment) and Gaddafi (lynching)? At least the international criminal court has not come into the act, which would make the crisis even worse.
There were signs at the Arab League meeting in Rabat on Wednesday that the organisation may be having second thoughts about its hasty suspension of Syria last Saturday. The decision was unconstitutional because only a summit of Arab leaders can call for a member's suspension, and the demand must be unanimous. Now the League has delayed implementing it. It has given Syria three days to accept civilian and military monitors to check the situation.
If that were to become a serious effort at mediation, so much the better. The best model is the agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war, reached after talks in Taif in Saudi Arabia in 1989.  Although it was negotiated by the various Lebanese parties and interest groups, Saudi sponsorship and support were important.
Whether Saudi Arabia can play a similar role today is doubtful. Eagerly backed by the Obama administration, the monarchy seems bent on an anti-Iranian mission in which toppling Syria's Shia-led regime is seen as a proxy strike against Tehran. The Saudis and Americans are working closely with the Sunni forces of Saad Hariri in Beirut, who are still smarting from their loss of control of the Lebanese government this spring.
Turkey tried mediating this summer, but its effort was treated by the Assad regime as duplicitous because Turkey was simultaneously helping the Syrian opposition to organise in Istanbul. Torn between a desire for good relations with its neighbour Iran as well as with Arab Sunni regimes, Turkey has gone over fully to the anti-Assad side. US pressure and Washington's renewed willingness to turn a blind eye to Turkish military incursions against Kurdish guerrilla bases in northern Iraq may have played a role.
In theory the UN could mediate, but its efforts to broker an end to Libya's civil war had no support from western members of the security council. With their anti-Assad, no-amnesty stance they seem just as unwilling to seek peace in Syria. Russia alone has had the wisdom to support dialogue and give a strong message to that effect when Syrian oppositionists visited Moscow.
The Arab League could yet appoint a group of eminent independent Arabs to listen to all sides in the Syrian crisis and seek a "new Taif". The team would have to include Shia as well as Sunni members. But first the Arab League needs to reject the anti-Iranian hysteria that the US, Israel and the Saudis are stirring up along the Gulf. The abyss of all-out civil war in Syria is far more real. And it is very close.