The Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad looked dangerously isolated last night, with a wall of regional opposition steadily building around him and Arab League sources suggesting his regime will face unprecedented condemnation when the organisation meets this weekend.
International observers are now preparing their final report on the Assad’s 10-month crackdown and look likely to deliver a stinging rebuke to his government, which the UN says is responsible for killing more than 5,000 civilians since last March.
“Everyone is saying it will be bad,” said one Arab League source who spoke to The Independent last night. “There was a meeting today with delegates from across the region. Nobody thinks it will be good for Syria.”
The League is due to hold a meeting this weekend where member states will decide what action to take.
Despite the presence of international monitors this month - after they were reluctantly allowed in to see whether Assad would comply with an Arab peace plan – the shooting of protesters has continued unabated, according to the UN.
It leaves Arab League delegates with the unenviable task of deciding how to punish one of its own, a country which, until recently, was a cornerstone of regional politics. The options range from ditching the monitors, to extending the mission or even allowing in armed protection and ramping up the international presence.
But according to Wissam Tarif, a Syria specialist from the New York-based Avaaz human rights group, Assad – whose name means lion in Arabic – may be beyond taming. “He is under the illusion he can manipulate the whole world,” he said.
It has led to opposition groups calling for weightier measures to help rein in the Baathist regime.
Today a coalition of 140 NGOs from across the Middle East, including some of the region’s most high profile organisations, released an open letter which criticised the Arab League mission and called on Dr Nabil el-Araby, the organisation’s chief, to refer the Syrian crisis to the UN Security Council.
Speaking to The Independent, a leading member of the Syrian National Council, the most prominent opposition group, also called on the UN Security Council to get involved. “We are recommending that the UN should act on the basis of article seven of its constitution, which involves protecting civilians even if that requires using armed forces,” said Adib Shishakly.
He added: “We would like Bashar al-Assad to recognise that Syrians don’t want him anymore. If he doesn’t believe that, then let the international community conduct free elections and let’s see if he wins.”
In December members of the Arab League came together in order to draft a peace initiative with a view to halting Assad’s crackdown.
A preliminary report earlier this month suggested that the violence being meted out by Assad’s forces had reduced slightly, though the UN still said that hundreds of civilians had died despite of the presence of League monitors.
A series of deadly bomb attacks occurred soon after the observers arrived – a highly unusual course of events in a country notorious for its scrupulous internal security measures. The regime blamed terrorists, though there were accusations from opposition groups that Assad’s secret police had orchestrated the outrages in a bid to manipulate the League’s findings.
Yet in spite of the uncharacteristically co-ordinated action from the Arab League, analysts are question what action can possibly be taken in a country straddling so many explosive fault lines.
“I think for the time being the Arab League countries are still considering what to do,” said Rime Allaf, a Syria expert from the Chatham House think tank.”I’m doubtful, frankly, that the League will take this issue to the UN as there are so many divisions between the Arab countries.”
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