Bashar Assad has agreed to let in Arab League monitors, but the Syrian autocrat’s history of unkept promises suggests a conclusion to the crisis roiling his country remains a long way off.
Monday’s announcement offered little new. The plan in question, first proposed last month, would have the Syrian government withdraw its troops from the country’s cities, release political prisoners, hold talks with opposition groups and let in monitors from Arab League states.
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Damascus immediately agreed to all of the terms except the last, which it condemned as a “violation of sovereignty.”
Andrew Tabler, a Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Monday’s apparent change of heart is merely the latest empty gesture from a regime intent on clinging to power by any means.
Assad “hides behind sovereignty, and this plan would seem to put his activities in the spotlight. He will now try to skirt around the plan to his advantage and play for time,” said Tabler, author of the recently released book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.
“If he pulls back from cities and people protest, the true scale of the uprising will be apparent. That will be hard for him to handle politically,” he said.
With the Syrian uprising in its ninth month and more than 5,000 people
believed killed, Assad’s diplomatic standing has all but collapsed.
The US and EU have both implemented tough sanctions, and last month the
Arab League took the rare step of suspending Syria, a founding member of
the 21-nation Arab bloc.
Damascus now has just two close friends left – Iran and Russia.
The Islamic Republic uses Syria as a conduit for arms and money to
Hezbollah and Hamas, and prizes the country as its only strong ally
among the Arab states.
Russia’s ties with Syria date back decades – throughout the three-decade
presidency of Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez, Syria received a
steady flow of money, weapons and advisers from the Soviet Union.
Today, the two countries enjoy a mutually advantageous relationship:
Russia is Syria’s largest arms supplier, while the Syrian coastal city
of Tartus hosts a Russian naval base that is the Kremlin’s only overseas
naval base and its gateway to the Mediterranean. Since 2009 the
Russians have been quietly modernizing the base and dredging its port to
allow access for the larger ships in its naval fleet.
But Syria’s growing diplomatic isolation has now forced even Russia to
deliver its own perfunctory condemnation of the violence. Last week it
circulated a surprise draft resolution in the UN Security Council
castigating Damascus for its “disproportionate use of force.”
The draft, however, was criticized by Western members of the Council for
blaming both the government and protesters equally for the bloodshed.
“Russia is giving Assad another last chance,” Tabler said.
“The pulling of Arab League cover makes Russia’s position at the UN Security Council appear increasingly feckless.”
On Monday, Farid Ghadry, president of the US-based Reform Party of Syria
opposition group, predicted the Arab- League sponsored peace plan would
be “one of the shortest-lived treaties ever signed.”
“A nod to agreeing is just a nod,” Ghadry wrote in his blog. “Assad is
just buying time to recollect and rest before he unleashes another
hellish episode to control the Syrian street once and for all.”