The League of Arab States has issued an ultimatum to Syria: cease all hostilities against
your rebelling citizens by November 16, or face expulsion from the League. This is not
a token threat: The next move could be an Arab military intervention condoned by the
League. On Monday, November 14, the League announced that it was sending 500 observers to Syria
to monitor the situation.
President Assad of Syria recognizes well the risk of facing the Arab states' armies. In fact, such a move
sanctioned by the Arab League would be putting an official seal on events already taking place.
Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are supporting the rebels with weapons, ammunition
and intelligence. Turkey, Syria's northern neighbor allows the rebels to train in Turkish
camps. On Saturday Assad responded. Thousands of his supporters raided
the Turkish embassy in Damascus and burned a Turkish flag. Others stormed the Qatar
embassy chanting "Qatar is not our friend anymore." The French and Saudi embassies
were also attacked. There were smaller demonstrations in Aleppo, Lattakia, Sweida and
Raqqa. On Monday, November 14, Protesters removed the Jordanian flag from their embassy in Damascus and replaced it with the flag of Hezbollah, hoping that the Jordanians will understand the message.
The League of Arab States is a political organization that was formed in Cairo in
1945 "[to] draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate collaboration
between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a
general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries." Currently, the League has 21
member states (with a total population of 360 million- 15% more than the US living over
5 million square miles, an area 30% bigger than the US).
The League's threat emphasized Assad's dilemma if he steps down from power; if he's
lucky he would face the same fate as Mubarak, the former Egyptian president who is currently on trial. And if Assad is unlucky, he could end up like Khadafy, in the morgue. The League's potential call for assembling Arab states' armies to fight another Arab State is not new. Military units from Turkey and Jordan joined forces with NATO in combating against Khadafy's army in Libya. Therefore, Assad was quick to label the League's ultimatum as motivated by the Americans, calling the League's leaders "puppets."
74% of the Syrians are Sunni Muslims, while the country is ruled with an iron fist
by Alawite Muslims -- a 7% minority, who are religiously close to the Shia Muslim
sect. The Alawites dealt themselves the best cards in Syria and members of their community control most of the important government positions particularly in the army and in the security services.
Some attribute the origin of the term "a bear hug" to a scenario when a man is wrestling
an attacking bear while his petrified friends around him shout "leave the bear!" to which
he answers, "I can leave the bear, but will the bear leave me?"
If Assad steps down, he could face a serious problem from his own sect's bear hug, the Alawis, also known as Alawite, who are most likely to lose their positions of power and money. That problem should not be taken lightly by Assad in a country where the army routinely shoots its own vocal protesting citizens, more than 3,000 thus far and counting.
If Assad is gone, the struggle for power among the Sunni majority and the Alawite
minority could bring a bloodbath. To avoid a power vacuum, Alawite officers of the
Syrians Army could decide that they should depose Assad and take over the regime,
rather than wait for him to escape.
Assad feels the heat. While only dozens of soldiers and officers deserted the
Syrian army to join the rebels when the uprising began in January 2011, to date, there are
reports that daily desertions are in the hundreds. On a larger scale, Assad's wobbly
throne is watched with great concern particularly by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. Assad
has been Iran's loyal ally in the region and allowed weapons and ammunition to pass
from Iran to Hezbollah through Syria. Intelligence reports also indicated that Iranian arms
shipment to Shiite forces in Iraq was transferred through Syria. If the Alawite regime
in Syria collapses and the Sunnis take over, the Iranians would have to look for other
routes for their weapons supply to Hezbollah which help maintain Hezbollah's grip over
Lebanon, and Iran's grip over Hezbollah. What is to become of them if Assad is gone and
with him also their access to Iran? Since the Hezbollah is armed to the teeth and is well
trained, the chances that they will join Assad in protecting his regime and their interests
with it are increasing.
Additionally, Assad has been the Russians' comrade in the region allowing them to build
a new port in Tartus, thereby giving the Russian coveted access to the Mediterranean.
With a Sunni regime, it is unknown how long the leftover friendship with the Russians would last.
The question remains whether the Arab League will make the call to attack Syria with
Arab states' armies. Will NATO, with or without US forces jump on the wagon to
vicariously defeat Iran by causing a regime change in Syria, Iran's ally in the region?
The clock is ticking for Assad, who faces a lose-lose situation, and knows that in the
Middle East, dictators never get to retire peacefully to write their memoirs. Therefore,
his struggle to remain in power is in fact a fight for his life. That could force him to do the unexpected.