In the Sunday Times last weekend, Bashar al-Assad said he refuses to consider stepping down, or to talk with Syria’s armed opposition unless they lay down their arms first. The dictator has thereby rendered the idea of negotiations totally pointless, and slammed the door on the recent flurry of efforts aimed at reaching a diplomatic solution to a two-year conflict that has cost more than 70,000 lives and displaced millions.
However, Assad’s interview with the British newspaper may not have the desired effect. His defiance has been reciprocated by the opposition and its foreign backers, and diplomatic efforts have given way to three important developments in the last week regarding the supply of material help to the rebels, principally from Arab states, Britain and the U.S., whose Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington will work to “empower” the opposition. What was intended as a show of strength by Assad may have helped weaken him further.
The most important development is the Arab League’s decision to support members who choose to arm Syrian rebels. The League stressed “the right of each state, according to its wishes, to offer all types of self-defence, including military, to support the resilience of the Syrian people and the Free (Syrian) Army.” Of its 22 member states, only three - Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon - opposed the decision.
This is “an unprecedented step” with “substantial legal significance” because the League “is now officially supporting the armed toppling of the Syrian regime,” said Al Arabiya General Manager Abdulrahman al-Rashed. “This paves the way for a new stage of the Syrian revolution,” which will lead to “a fundamental change on the ground,” he added.
“At last, the Arab League has given the Syrian people hope through sanctioning the entry of weapons and supporting the revolutionaries,” said Rashed, who lamented “the fact that had the entry of weapons been legalized earlier, extremist groups would not have been part of the conflict now. Prohibition and restriction harmed the more deserving Syrian opposition groups that have a national project, and helped extremist groups that were not obliged to report to revolutionary institutions or follow the instructions of its leaderships.”
The Arab League has “finally realised that their joint mediation mission with the U.N. in Syria, which is led by Lakhdar Brahimi, has failed. They’re now resigned to the fact that Assad’s regime isn’t going to opt for a political solution to the crisis,” said Hasni Abidi, director of the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World. “The situation on the ground is also at a stalemate.” The League “didn’t really have a choice, considering the situation.”
The organization has also offered the opposition Syrian National Coalition the country’s seat at the League, provided that it forms a representative executive council. The League suspended Syria’s membership in 2011, after Assad’s failure to abide by an Arab peace plan.
Separately, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, whose country is widely believed to already be arming rebels, insisted on the right of Syrians to self-defence.
This will be music to the ears of the Free Syrian Army, whose Chief of Staff Brigadier Salim Idriss said last week: “When we don’t have enough weapons, when we don’t have enough ammunition, the regime still considers itself powerful, and it continues killing. If we have the arms and munitions we need, we can get rid of the regime within a month,” Idris said. “We’re making real progress. A great deal of the east of the country has been liberated.”
Another important announcement came from the British government, which said it will provide £13 million in “non-lethal” equipment - including armored vehicles and body armor - to opposition forces. Foreign Secretary William Hague said it was a “necessary, proportionate and lawful response” to “extreme human suffering,” and “there’s no practicable alternative.”
The Syrian people are in “dire need of help,” and the UK cannot “look the other way,” he added. “All our assistance will be carefully calibrated and monitored ... and will be aimed at saving life, alleviating this human catastrophe and supporting moderate groups.”
However, the most crucial aspect of Hague’s statement was his refusal to rule out the possibility of directly arming rebels in the future: “In our view, if a political solution ... isn’t found and the conflict continues, we and the rest of the EU will have to be ready to move further, and we shouldn’t rule out any option for saving lives.”
This “marks a significant shift in British policy,” said BBC defence and diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus. Although it “still falls far short of the weaponry that the Syrian opposition wants,” Marcus added that Hague “made it clear that Britain’s policy was not static and the direction in which it is heading, he hopes, will send a clear message to the regime in Damascus.”
Nonetheless, Idriss last week described the European Union arms embargo as “really unfortunate, ” as it “only affects the victims” because “the Syrian regime receives weapons from Russia and Iran.”
Some argue that the Arab League’s decision to officially support its member states arming Syrian rebels will not make a difference because those that would, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been doing so for some time.
While this is true, such support has been clandestine and bilateral. Having the League’s official backing can make arms supplies official, larger in quantity, more advanced, and better organized. As such, in terms of Arab military support for the revolution, the gloves may be coming off.
This will likely result in an increase in Russian and Iranian military support for the Assad regime, thereby escalating the conflict further. This is a tragic scenario, but one that was fairly predictable - many would say unavoidable - given the Syrian dictator’s refusal to relinquish power.
The arms embargo during the Bosnian civil war hurt the country’s Muslims the most - the very people who bore the brunt of it - because the Russians were readily arming Bosnian Serbs, who could also rely on the Serbian army, as could Bosnian Croats on Croatia’s. This enabled atrocities such as the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica at the hands of Bosnian Serbs.
The same is true in Syria. While the arguments against further militarization of the revolution are rational and well-intentioned, they do not address the imbalance that has been allowed to occur due to the frequent supplies of heavy weaponry to the Assad regime from its allies, compared with the light arms trickling their way to rebels. No one wants an escalation of a conflict that has dragged on for far too long and cost far too much, but arming only side is no solution either - on the contrary.
Had the Libyan revolution not been aided by Nato, it would have failed, not because it did not have popular support, but because civilians and lightly armed, disparate militias were up against a ruthless leader with a much more powerful army. That the revolution received foreign backing did not negate the legitimacy of the cause. The rebels had no choice but to accept such assistance, and neither do those in Syria.
This was not the case in Tunisia or Egypt because their dictators stepped down relatively quickly and with far less bloodshed, negating the need to take up arms, or request and receive foreign help. As such, it is those autocrats who cling greedily, selfishly and violently to power, along with their foreign allies who prop them up, who bear responsibility for the militarization of the revolutions against them.
The argument by Assad apologists that he is entitled to receive foreign military support because his regime is a sovereign government is absolute nonsense. No sovereign government in the world has the right to oppress its own people, let alone receive arms from other countries to do so.
Those who believe otherwise are simply condoning state tyranny - in Syria’s case, a regime facing credible accusations and evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. How atrocities committed by a government are any less abhorrent than those committed by militant groups is beyond logic.
I am deeply concerned with much of what the various opposition groups say and do - I do not speak for them, and they do not speak for me or many others who oppose the regime - and I am greatly disturbed by the extent and motives of foreign involvement on both sides of the conflict. But ultimately, it is Assad’s stubborn megalomania that has taken Syria to a point of destruction that most people previously thought unimaginable.
Assad can end this madness, but this would entail him placing the fate and suffering of the country and its people above his maintenance of power. He has shown time and again that such an outcome is wishful thinking.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash