The Syrian conundrum and the Yemeni predicament
This is all in the hope that the two regimes will succeed in quelling the popular uprisings and abort the popular demands of change. The two regimes offered guarantees but failed to fulfill them, and they announced pledges which they also failed to implement. The reason is the same in both cases; the lack of a real desire to carry out changes that respond to the people’s aspirations and demands that they have expressed through their continual protests, in spite of the suppression and tyranny they have faced.
From the outset these two regimes have considered the protestors to be traitors, and deemed their demands to be a conspiracy plotted by foreign parties. It was clear since then that the two regimes would not offer concessions to meet the popular demands, and that they would resort to all means and tricks to quell the protests. In any case, it was clear that both regimes would continue their tyranny and suppressive policies.
Ali Abdullah Saleh gambled on the fact that the West would need him in its war against Al-Qaeda in Yemen, and that other regional countries were dreading the security unrest and chaos in a country deemed geographically difficult, a country with a complex political and tribal structure and a heavily armed population. Therefore, President Saleh addressed his people with his famous phrase, “I will not leave. You leave.”
As for the Syrian regime, it has gambled on the fact that the West needs it even if it did not like it, because Western powers dread all other alternatives and seek not to destabilize the situation near the Israeli border. Such a way of thinking was exposed by the statements of Rami Makhlouf, the Syrian president’s nephew and a former influential figure in the regime, when stating to the New York Times newspaper that if there was no stability in Syria, then there would be no stability in Israel.
For anyone who considers such statements to be old or not in line with the regime, we must refer to the series of threats launched by the Syrian leadership on several occasions, when saying that it would ignite the entire region and escalate the unrest and troubles in other countries. We must also refer to the leadership’s statement that any harm inflicted upon Syria will not be limited to its borders, but will extend to the neighboring states and the Gulf region.
This was not the only gamble, as Damascus and Sana’a have both relied on the assumption that Arab official reactions will remain crippled and ineffective, and that the maximum the Arabs can do is to issue condemning statements and call for an end to the violence and bloodshed.
Thus at the beginning the Syrian regime rejected any Arab action or intervention, for it believed that the solution must come from within. In effect, this meant further security suppression to quell the popular uprising, more superficial solutions, and loose promises of reform. Later on, the two regimes adopted a policy of procrastination and embarked on attempts to buy time by offering promises and pledges that were never fulfilled. They also announced their acceptance of Arab initiatives, but without taking actual steps to put them into effect.
The success of this gamble was guaranteed in the past, but the Arab world begun to change as never before when Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali fled his country and Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power, in response to stormy protests and popular uprisings. The Arab stance changed during the events in Libya, where resolutions adopted during the Arab League’s recent meetings created a turning point in the course of the Libyan revolution. At that time, Gaddafi and his son Saif Al-Islam reacted to the Arab League’s position with the ugly phrase, “To hell with the Arabs, and to hell with their league.”
Recently we have heard the same language in the reaction of Syria’s envoy to the Arab League, following its recent resolutions that surprised Damascus, which did not expect the League to adopt such strong action. In fact, it was not the Syrian regime alone that failed to expect the Arabs to come up with timely decisions, going beyond mere rhetoric and statements to genuine action. The Syrian protestors had previously carried banners condemning the Arab League’s deadlines given to the Syrian regime, claiming that they did nothing to prevent the suppression and killings.
The Arab League’s recent statements alone will not force the Syrian regime to respond to its people’s demands of change, but they will at least give a boost to the protestors, and open the door for upcoming Arab and international measures to exert more pressure on the regime. The resolutions may also be a tuning-point in the course of events. The Arab stance this time went a step further when it addressed the Syrian army and demanded that it refrain from acts of violence and killing civilians. The Arabs invited the Syrian opposition for a meeting at the League’s headquarters to discuss measures for the upcoming period and agree on a unified vision, or more precisely, to draw up a roadmap for the course of events and the future of Syria. These two steps are of great significance and convey a message that the majority of Arab states reject the Syrian regime’s account of events, and that they are no longer convinced by its promises. Thus they are inclined towards accepting the demonstrators’ call for the regime to step down. Perhaps, in this context, one can understand the Jordanian King’s statement, in which he urged the Syrian president to step down for the sake of his people.
Syria is now likely to witness major transformations in its crisis, after the regime has alienated all parties that tried to help it end the crisis, and convinced them that it is not serious about its promises of change and ending the violence. In view of such a stance, the Arabs, at long last, have overcome their complex of failing to take clear and strong measures against the Syrian regime, fearing that this would be interpreted as supporting the demands of the protestors and their call for change.
As long as the situation develops this way in Syria, Yemen will not be spared the consequences. This is because President Saleh has also convinced everyone that he is maneuvering to cling onto power, and that his unfulfilled promises have now become a predicament threatening the GCC initiative. The only alternative available now is to increase the pressure to accelerate his departure, in order to avoid further violence.
The writer is Asharq Al-Awsat’s Senior Editor-at-Large, where this article was first published on Nov. 20, 2011.