Jonathan Steele writes: 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 The image of a regime shooting down unarmed protesters, which was true in March and April this year, has become out of date.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.