Several months back, when the Arab League suspended Libya's membership and passed a resolution supporting a "no-fly zone" over the country; it appeared to be a one-off affair. Muammar Gaddafi had worked hard, for decades, to make himself a regional pariah. His bizarre behavior, his reign of terror, and his absurd policy pronouncements had long outraged and embarrassed many across the Arab World. So it was not surprising when, in the face of Gaddafi's threats to commit massacres against demonstrators in his own country, Arab leaders threw their hands up and took the unprecedented step of inviting foreign intervention to restrain the region's madman.
Could this happen again? Was it possible for another Arab leader to behave so badly that he would become a regional liability and a threat to regional stability? At the time, it seemed unlikely. There did not appear to be any logical candidate among the current crop of Arab leaders. Even those who had committed outrages of their own did not appear to have what it would take to become, in short order, as reviled and isolated as Gaddafi.
The results of a recent poll released this week by the Arab American Institute, however, suggest that Syria's President Bashar al Assad may well be on the way to assuming the role as the region's new outcast. The Arab American Institute poll, conducted in late September-early October by Zogby Research Services, surveyed over 4,000 Arabs in six countries (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and UAE).
What emerges so clearly from the results of this poll is the degree to which the Syrian government of al Assad has become isolated and is looked on with near universal disdain across the entire Arab World. This is a remarkable turnabout. Just three years ago, our region-wide poll of the same six countries, conducted for the University of Maryland, asked respondents to name a leader, not from their own country, that they most respected. Scoring higher than any other Arab head of state was Bashar al Assad. That this is no longer the case comes through quite dramatically in our 2011 survey.
Here's some of what we learned. In the first place we found that the overwhelming majority of Arabs, in the six nations covered in the survey, side with those Syrians demonstrating against the government (with support for them ranging from 83 percent in Morocco to 100 percent in Jordan). And when asked whether Bashar al Assad can continue to govern, the highest affirmative ratings he receives in the six countries covered in the survey are a mere 15 percent in Morocco and 14 percent in Egypt, with the rest in low single digits.
Most telling is the scant support the Syrian leader receives in Lebanon. From other results in the same poll, we can see that Lebanese haven't stopped giving Hizbollah a net favorable rating and more than one-half of Lebanese Shia even maintaining a favorable view of the role played by Iran in Syria. But in questions dealing with the Syrian leader, it is clear that whatever support he might have commanded from some Lebanese in the past is now gone.
There are other important considerations that emerge from these results. First and foremost is the fact that Turkey's interventions with Syria to date have won majority support in every Arab country. And Saudi Arabia's role is viewed positively in every country but Lebanon. The country receiving the lowest rating across the region for its role in Syria is the United States (with Iran close behind). This should serve as a cautionary note for U.S. policy-makers. Despite the appeals of some in the Syrian opposition and the taunts of some conservative hawks in the U.S. that President Obama "must do more," Syria appears not to be a place where U.S. interference will ultimately be welcomed -- especially in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Syria is not Libya, despite the regime's brutal behavior and its growing regional isolation. It is not an arena for NATO engagement. Such interference will only create tensions and possibly conflicts beyond Syria's borders.
With the Arab League having sent a mission to Syria this week to give the regime one final opportunity to end its violence and begin a national dialogue leading to reform and transition, it will be best to lend support to such regional efforts to resolve this crisis. It is of concern that neither the government nor the opposition appears interested, at this point, in such negotiations. The regime still appears to believe that they can win. They know they still have the support of those groups who are fearful of the changes that may come should the opposition win. Meanwhile the opposition, outraged by the continuing violence and repression, has shown no signs of weakening resolve. To the contrary, they have been emboldened by international support they are receiving, and have met the government's intransigence, with a hardening of their own position.
But all sides must be wary of allowing this situation to continue. As gruesome as it has been to watch unarmed demonstrators being shot in the streets, it can get much worse. What is especially worrisome now is the concern that with disaffected members of the Syrian military and other protesting dissidents resorting to violence, the conflict could further escalate into an all-out civil war that could cause the current body count to grow by multiples of ten or more. The consequences could be grave, and not only for Syria and Syrians, but for the entire region.
Alarm bells ought to be going off everywhere. It can be in no one's interest to allow the on-going situation to continue to spin out of control, which, if left unchecked, it surely will. The Arab League initiative, the regional effort to end the bloodshed and repression and begin serious negotiations leading to transition process opening the way to a free and democratic Syria that respects and protects the rights of all of its people, should receive broad international backing.