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Arab nations add to pressure on Syrian regime

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain withdraw their ambassadors as more nations seek to pressure President Bashar Assad to end the assault on the pro-democracy movement.

August 09, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • An image made from a handout video made available by Shaam News Network is said to show Syrians shouting anti-government slogans during a protest in Latakia.
An image made from a handout video made available by Shaam News Network is… (Shaam News Network / HO /…)

Reporting from Beirut — Syria's neighbors have turned decisively against President Bashar Assad, launching a diplomatic campaign against his crackdown on the country's pro-democracy movement that analysts say could have a major effect on important pillars of Assad's support.

Even as Syrian armed forces pushed Monday against several opposition strongholds, international action against the government mushroomed. The diplomatic pressure marked a significant change from the largely cautious international response for most of the last five months.

Western countries so far have led efforts to pressure Assad to stop the violent crackdown on protesters, including issuing a U.N. Security Council statement last week condemning the offensive. Over the weekend, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, a body of six wealthy Arabian Peninsula kingdoms, also denounced the violence. And on Monday, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors.

In addition, Turkey, once a steadfast ally, is preparing to take a harder approach. Turkish reports said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would arrive in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Tuesday to deliver an ultimatum.

The two nations "will sit down and talk for one last time," the Turkish daily Hurriyet quoted an unidentified Foreign Ministry official as saying. "The talks will show whether the ties will be cut loose or not, or if a new [Turkish] policy is to be outlined on Syria. That's the last meeting."

The Obama administration praised the increased diplomatic pressure. Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said Washington was heartened by the response from the Saudis, the Persian Gulf states and the Arab League, but said that more was needed.

There were signs that Washington was looking to Turkey to use its influence. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Davutoglu on Sunday and a senior U.S. diplomat, Fred Hof, visited Ankara, the Turkish capital.

Although the United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on individuals and pressed Assad to make reforms, they have stopped short of saying he should step down. Western policymakers are concerned about instability in a country with a potent sectarian mix that borders Israel and Lebanon and is allied with Iran.

Though Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi has so far proved able to withstand the end of diplomatic recognition, an armed rebellion, NATO airstrikes and defection of many loyalists, Syria may be different. Unlike Libya, it has little oil revenue to fund its patronage networks and it has in the past proved susceptible to pressure.

"Historically, concerted multilateral pressure and sanctions have the greatest impact on the Assad regime's calculations," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former longtime resident of Damascus. "The former forced Assad to pull his forces out of Lebanon in February 2005. And we know that sanctions impact the regime, given its terrible economic situation and the regime's worsening finances."

The evidence that Assad is susceptible to sanctions, he said, is that it has pressed the United States to lift them if Syria negotiates a peace treaty with Israel.

Top echelons of the Syrian government appear to perceive the protest movement as an existential threat, but important pillars of Assad's support may be vulnerable to outside pressure, analysts said.

Pressure "may not matter to the very top," said Robert Malley, Middle East and North Africa director for the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution and advocacy group funded by Western governments and charities. "But it may matter to the people who are right beneath them. It may matter to those who have to decide to stick to the decision makers at the core of the regime, or whether they sense the tide is turning domestically and internationally."

Among those constituencies are the prosperous Sunni Muslim and Christian merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo, traders with ties to neighboring Turkey and even members of Assad's minority Alawite community, a small Shiite sect, whose members lead the country's secret police.

"Members of the security forces may themselves be concerned that the violence is pointless and exposes the whole Alawite community to the wrath of the population," which is overwhelmingly Sunni, Malley said.

Assad's timing and targets appear to have forced Persian Gulf countries, which also are predominantly Sunni, to act. Gulf monarchies were cool to the so-called Arab Spring uprisings, which inspired the protesters in Syria. Saudi Arabia dispatched troops to quell demonstrations in neighboring Bahrain.

But Assad's decision to conduct major offensives in largely Sunni enclaves during the holy month of Ramadan appears to have turned the gulf countries against him. His July 31 move against the city of Hama evoked memories of a massacre of civilians in the city by forces loyal to his father in 1982.

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