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Assad Wins, Syria Loses

7 April 2012

Assad Wins, Syria Loses

By Gwynne Dyer

“We, the undersigned armed terrorist groups, hereby promise to stop all violence in Syria and surrender all our weapons to the Syrian regime. We will no longer carry out the orders of Israel, the United States, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have been financing our campaign of armed terrorism against the Syrian people. Love, the terrorists of the Free Syrian Army.”

As soon as Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria gets “written guarantees” from the “armed terrorist groups” to surrender, announced the Syrian foreign ministry on 8 April, it will comply with its promise to withdraw its tanks and artillery from rebellious Syrian cities. Sorry, no, there’s more. The regime also wants “guarantees of commitment by the governments of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to stop financing the armed terrorist groups.”

The United Nations and the Arab League thought they had a deal. The Syrian government had promised the mediator, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that it would remove all its heavy weapons from urban areas by 10 April, and accept a complete cease-fire by the 12th. But then Damascus announced that the international community had been “mistaken” to think that it was really going to pull its troops out.

“Kofi Annan has until now not furnished to the Syrian government written guarantees about the acceptance of the armed terrorist groups to stop violence in all its forms, and their readiness to surrender their weapons so that state authority can spread on all territory,” the statement said. In other words, as soon as the pro-democracy side surrenders unconditionally, “peace” – i.e., the tyranny of the Baath regime – will be restored.

Kofi Annan, the United Nations and the Arab League were doing the best they could, but with no member country willing to use military force against Syria they had no leverage whatever. If Bashar al-Assad really pulled all his troops out of Syrian cities, they would then immediately fall into the hands of the opposition, so he wasn’t going to do that.

The senior people at the UN and the Arab League who approved the deal were hoping at least to put an end to the Syrian regime’s use of massive force against civilians. Assad was obviously not going to meekly give up power, but many innocent lives would be saved if he could just be persuaded to stop using tanks and artillery against cities. He would probably continue killing his opponents on a retail basis, but the wholesale killing would stop.

However, Assad only agreed to the UN proposal in the first place because Russia and China needed some diplomatic cover if they were to go on vetoing any action against Syria by the Security Council. But it turns out that no country is willing to pay the price in lives of a military intervention in Syria anyway, so it doesn’t really matter what the Security Council says – and moving to a lower-profile strategy would have a significant cost for the regime.

Suppressing the uprising one murder at a time, with the regime’s intelligence services and “special forces” operating in hostile urban areas, would cost them a lot of casualties. The regime calculated the likelihood of foreign military intervention, concluded that it was zero, and reneged on the deal.

It was worth trying to de-escalate the conflict, but it isn’t going to happen. Shelling cities with tanks and artillery is a highly inefficient way of restoring government control over them, but it keeps the casualties down on the regime side.

So has the Assad regime won despite the deaths of 9,000 protesters? Probably. Non-violent resistance to tyranny is a powerful tool, but no political technique works every time without fail, and Syria’s Baath Party was always a hard target.

It is a single-party regime that is dominated by and mainly serves the interests of a minority, the Alawites (only 10 percent of the population), who fear catastrophic revenge by the majority if they lose power. However, it also has significant support from other minorities, notably the Christians and the Druze.

Most of the people in these groups have swallowed the guff about “armed terrorist groups,” and they are all terrified of majority rule, which they are convinced would hand power to the Sunni Muslims (70 percent of the population). That was not the goal of the original protesters, who genuinely believed in a non-sectarian Syrian democracy, but the Assad regime is adroit at the game of divide-and-rule.

The prospect of a non-violent transition to a democratic Syria that commands the loyalty of all the country’s religious and ethnic groups has vanished. The people who tried to make that happen were astoundingly brave, and they kept their protests entirely peaceful for seven months despite extreme regime violence, but now most of them have either been killed, or they have taken up arms.

The remaining options are both bad. If Assad succeeds in suppressing all resistance, Syria will be an even more oppressive and unjust place than it was before. If he only partially succeeds, it will open the way to an all-against-all civil war like the one that devastated Lebanon in 1975-1990. There is no plausible third option.

Am I saying that an Assad victory is Syria’s best remaining option? No, I cannot bring myself to say that. But I think that I am writing the epitaph of Syria’s attempted non-violent revolution.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 12. (“However…deal”; and “Most…rule”)


The Syrian Tragedy

30 January 2012

The Syrian Tragedy

By Gwynne Dyer

“The Security Council cannot go about imposing solutions in crisis situations in various countries of the world,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, as the UN began discussing what to do about the Syrian crisis last Friday. He needn’t worry. Even as Syria drifts inexorably towards a catastrophic civil war, nobody else is willing to put troops into the country, so how are they going to impose anything?

You can’t blame them for their reluctance, because Syria isn’t Libya. It is a big country with a powerful army, the core of which will remain loyal to the Assad regime right down to the last ditch. A good 30 percent of the civilian population will join them in the ditch: the Alawites (Shia), the Christians, and some of the Kurds and Druze, all of whom fear that the overthrow of the regime will put the Sunni Arab majority in the driving seat.

That’s where they should be, of course – they are at more than 70 percent of the population – but when revolutions triumphed recently in Tunisia and Egypt, the subsequent elections brought explicitly Islamic parties to parties. There’s no evidence that those parties will actually abuse the civil rights of minorities, but given the increasingly sectarian nature of the struggle in Syria, the minorities there are frightened by the prospect of Sunni power.

So the minorities will stick with President Bashar al-Assad no matter what his forces do to the Sunnis, and there are enough of them, given the regime’s virtual monopoly of heavy weapons, to hold out against either domestic insurgency or foreign military intervention for a long time. That’s why there won’t be any foreign military intervention.

But it’s getting worse in Syria. Several suburbs of Damascus itself have now fallen into rebel hands, and Assad’s forces are shelling neighbourhoods only 5 km. (3 mi.) from the centre of the city. Since last March, about 5,400 people have been killed by the regime’s military and paramilitary troops, and the 200 observers sent by the Arab League in December didn’t even slow the rate of killing.

In desperation, the Arab League suspended its monitoring mission last week and called for Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to a deputy within two weeks. That deputy would then be obliged to form a unity government with the opposition within two months. In other words, it demanded the end of the regime.

In fact, the Arab League has even drafted a joint resolution with Britain, France and Germany that threatens unspecified further measures against the Syrian regime if Assad does not step aside. Nabil al-Arabi, the head of the Arab League, is in New York this week to present it to the Security Council in person.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Syrian regime has already rejected the Arab League’s demand, insisting that what’s really happening in Syria is attacks by “armed terrorist gangs” (i.e. al-Qaeda) backed by Israel and the United States. Ridiculous, but a lot of Alawites and Christians actually believe it.

The worse news is that Russia will veto the resolution before the Security Council anyway. Assad is Moscow’s only real ally in the Middle East, and Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is on the Syrian coast. Bad Moscow – but the truth is that foreign military intervention would probably not stop the killing at this point unless it was truly massive. That wouldn’t happen even with a dozen Security Council resolutions.

The worst news of all is that this probably means that Syria is heading down into the same kind of hell that Lebanon went through in its fifteen-year civil war (1975-90).

It has just gone on too long. The Syrian protests began as a brave attempt to emulate the non-violent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. The Assad regime would kill people, of course, but if the protesters stood fast and refused to kill back, ultimately the regime’s support would just drain away. Non-violence was doubly important in the Syrian case, because if it were a violent revolution various minorities would feel gravely threatened.

Alas, that non-violent strategy has foundered on the rock of Syria’s sectarian and ethnic divisions. Sunni deserters from the army started fighting back, and all the other communities took fright. Now it’s a civil war in which the regime has the heavy weapons but the Sunni Arabs have the numbers.

Syria is just as complex a society as Lebanon, although we can still hope that the war does not go on as long. And it’s entirely possible that the Assad regime, whose senior ranks are mostly drawn from the Alawite minority (only 10 percent of the population), has deliberately chosen civil war. Better that than surrender power and expose the Alawites to the vengeance they fear from all those whom they have ruled for the past forty years.

This does not mean that the “Arab spring” was a mistake, or even that it is over. Few other Arab countries have as divided a population or as ruthless a regime as Syria. But it is still a great tragedy.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“In desperation…regime”; and “Syria…years”)



The Arab League

14 November 2011

The Arab League: The Infection Spreads

By Gwynne Dyer

For most of its 66-year history, the Arab League was a powerless organisation, dominated by autocratic regimes that made sure it never criticised their lies and crimes. But suddenly, this year, it woke up and changed sides.

Last March the Arab League suspended Libya’s membership because of dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal attempts to suppress the revolution, and voted to back a no-fly zone in Libya. That led directly to the UN resolution authorising the use of force to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s army, and ultimately to the tyrant’s overthrow and death.

Last Saturday the Arab League acted again, suspending Syria’s membership. It did so because President Bashar al-Assad has not carried out the commitments he gave the League about ending the violence against Syrian civilians (an estimated 3,500 killed so far), pulling the army off the streets of Syrian cities, releasing the thousands of recently imprisoned protesters, and opening a dialogue with the opposition within two weeks.

On Sunday the Arab League’s secretary-general, Nabil al-Arabi, called for “international protection” for Syrian civilians as the organisation lacked the means to act alone. “There is nothing wrong with going to the UN Security Council because it is the only organisation able to impose” such measures, he added. And he said that during a visit to Tripoli, the newly liberated capital of Libya.

Everybody understood the significance of his saying it there. The Arab League explicitly rejects foreign military intervention in Syria, and NATO would never take on Assad’s regime anyway. But al-Arabi was implicitly saying that what is happening in Syria now is comparable to what was happening in Libya six months ago, and that all measures short of war are justified to stop the slaughter in Syria and remove the dictator’s regime.

Then on Monday, King Abdullah of Jordan finally said aloud what almost every other Arab leader has been thinking: “If Bashar [al-Assad] has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down.”

It’s particularly striking coming from Abdullah because the two men are not just neighbours. They both came to power in 1999-2000, replacing fathers who had ruled over their respective countries for decades, and they were both originally painted as reformers. True, Bashar al-Assad is not technically a king, but he is equally the product of a dynasty – and here is his closest counterpart in the Arab world publicly giving up on him.

King Abdullah added that on his way out, Bashar should also “create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life.” Decoded, that means that Syria’s problems cannot be ending just by changing horses. The whole Baathist regime, and the near monopoly of power by the Alawite minority that underpins it, have to go too.

This is astonishing stuff. One year ago, nobody would have believed it possible that eighteen of the twenty-two members of the Arab League would vote, in effect, for the peaceful removal of the oppressive Syrian regime, or that the Jordanian king would dare to be so frank about his neighbour’s problems and options. What has wrought this miracle?

It would be nice to say that the rapid and largely non-violent spread of democracy in the Arab world has brought enlightenment even to the most deeply entrenched authoritarian regimes, but it would not be true. Only three of the 22 Arab League members (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya) have actually had democratic revolutions, and their example has not transformed the attitudes of all the other members. What drives this response is mostly fear.

The Arab League said nothing when Bashar al-Assad’s father slaughtered up to 40,000 Syrians while putting down a revolt in the city of Hama in 1982, but his son’s brutality is simply unacceptable today. Arab leaders can no longer ignore the mass killing of Arab citizens. Some of them would like to, but uncensored Arabic-language mass media, broadcasting directly from satellites, have made it impossible. Everybody knows what’s going on.

Moreover, none of the other big countries of the Arab east – Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon – are very far from Syria. The longer the struggle there goes on, the likelier it is to topple over into sectarian war and ethnic cleansing. The neighbours are rightly terrified that the sectarian violence might then spill over into their own countries as well, so the sooner Bashar al-Assad leaves office, the better.

And finally, there is the remarkable role being played by Qatar, the mouse that roared. It is one of the smallest Arab states, but its ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has been both brave and far-sighted. It was he who gave al-Jazeera television, the first and best of the new satellite-based news operations, a terrestrial home, and even substantial subsidies.

It was Qatar that took the lead in persuading the Arab League to suspend Gaddafi’s regime last March, and then actually sent planes and military advisers to assist the pro-democracy revolt in Libya. And it is Qatar again, in the form of Prime Minister Hamid bin Jassim Al Thani, chair of the League’s committee for dealing with Syrian problems, that pushed the League into suspending Syria last week.

Whether that will actually produce the desired result in Syria remains to be seen. But at least they are trying.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Everybody…regime”; and “It’s…him”)


Where Are The Egyptians When You Need Them?

12 March 2011

Where Are The Egyptians When You Need Them?

By Gwynne Dyer

The Libyan revolution is losing the battle. Gaddafy’s army does not have much logistical capability, but it can get enough fuel and ammunition east along the coast road to attack Benghazi, Libya’s second city, at some point in the next week or so. His army is not well trained and a lot of his troops are foreign mercenaries, but the lightly armed rebels cannot hold out long against tanks, artillery and air strikes.

Even sooner, Gaddafy’s forces will attack Misrata, Libya’s third city and the last opposition stronghold in the western half of the country. It will probably fall after some days of bitter fighting, as Zawiya eventually fell. And if Zawiya’s brave and stubborn resistance is repeated in the two larger cities then they will both suffer very large casualties, including many non-combatants, in the fighting.

What happens to the rebels and their families after active resistance is crushed will be much worse. When political prisoners in Abu Salim prison staged a protest at jail conditions in 1996, Gaddafy had 1,200 of them massacred. All the people now fighting him, or helping the Libyan National Council that organises resistance in the east, or just demonstrating against him, will be tracked down by his secret police. They and their families are doomed.

The collapse of the democratic revolution in Libya will also gravely damage the prospects of the “Arab spring” elsewhere. Rulers in other Arab countries where the army is also largely made up of foreign mercenaries (Bahrein and several other Gulf states, for example), will conclude that they can safely kill enough of their own protesters to “restore order.”

How can this disaster be prevented? Condemnation from abroad, including from the Arab League, will not stop Gaddafy. An arms embargo is too slow-acting, as are economic boycotts and freezing Libyan government assets overseas. Gaddafy is fighting for his life, probably literally, and he know that if he wins, the embargoes, boycotts and asset freezes will eventually be lifted. Libya has oil, after all.

Even the famous “no-fly” zone over Libya (now endorsed by France, Britain and the Arab League) would not stop Gadaffy’s advance. It’s not that destroying or grounding the Libyan air force, which is poorly trained and badly maintained, is a problem. Neither are Libya’s decrepit, last-generation-but-one surface-to-air defences. It’s just that Gaddafy can win without his air force. Tanks and artillery beat courage and small arms every time.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was not being entirely honest when he said that a no-fly zone could not be imposed without the prior destruction of all Libya’s surface-to-air defences, which would require a lot of bombing. It would be perfectly possible to enforce the no-fly ban from the air, and only attack Gaddafy’s ground-based defence systems if and when their targeting radars locked onto the enforcing aircraft.

Nevertheless, Gates is right to reject the no-fly solution, for two reasons. First, it wouldn’t stop Gaddafy’s advance. Second, if it were done by American and European air forces, it would undermine the Arab sense of ownership of this extraordinary revolt against tyranny. It would be pure gesture politics, to make the onlookers to the tragedy feel better about themselves.

What is actually needed is active military intervention on the ground and in the air by disciplined, well-trained Arab forces, sent by a revolutionary Arab government that is in sympathy with the Libyan rebels. So where is the Egyptian army when the Libyans need it?

Egypt has an open border with the rebel-controlled east of Libya, and just one brigade of the Egyptian army would be enough to stop Gaddafy’s ground forces in their tracks. The Egyptian air force could easily shoot down any of Gaddafy’s aircraft that dared to take off, especially if it had early warning from European or American AWACS aircraft.

The Egyptian army would probably not need to go all the way to Tripoli, although it could easily do so if necessary. Just the fact of Egyptian military intervention would probably convince most of the Libyan troops still supporting Gaddafy that it is time to change sides.

Arab League support for the intervention would not be hard to get, and the Libyan rebels are now desperate enough that they would quickly overcome their natural distrust of their giant neighbour. As for internal Egyptian politics, what better way for the Egyptian army to establish its revolutionary credentials and protect its privileged position in the state than by saving the revolution next door?

It is very much in the interest of the Egyptian revolution that Gaddafy does not triumph in Libya, and even more that the forces of reaction do not win in the broader Arab world. For the first time since Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1950s, the giant of the Arab world would also be its moral leader.

It would be nice if the Tunisian army could intervene from the west at the same time as the Egyptian army went into Libya from the east, but it is a far weaker force belonging to a far smaller country: Tunisia only has twice Libya’s population, whereas Egypt has twelve times as many people. No matter. Egypt would be enough on its own.

Only do it fast. A week from now will probably be too late.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“US Defense…themselves”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.