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The Struggle of the Islamists and Modernists Over the Arab Spring

The Syrian leadership has sealed away the possibility of remaining in power through reform, and brought upon itself the countdown to the end of the regime, sooner or later. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad holds nearly nothing but the key to how such an end will come, and what form it will take. The very last opportunity to save face is perhaps available to him by stepping down, but the Syrian leadership's options for an "exit strategy" would now be too little, too late. Only the model of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains. For Saleh is still in power and the window of impunity is still barely available for him, if he truly and quickly fulfills his commitments in accordance with the "GCC initiative", which would grant him immunity if he steps down from power. Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's arrogant rejection of the notion of stepping down - as well as that of the immunity from being held to account offered to him if he quickly implemented an "exit strategy"- proved of no use when Gaddafi met with a horrific end, one that had probably never crossed his mind. This is while the fact that Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali had fled his country temporarily protects him from being held accountable for corruption and murder. The trial of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and of his sons is ongoing, and its outcome will certainly not be acquittal. Perhaps the Syrian President has it in mind to wager on the unfeasibility of military options for the domestic opposition, and the unwillingness of NATO countries to repeat the Libyan scenario in Syria. Perhaps he is wagering on resolve and determination weakening over time, which would reduce regional, international and domestic pressures. In either case, this is a mistaken and fatal wager. The decision has already been made to impose stifling economic siege on the Syrian regime, both regionally and internationally. The regime will not be able to last very long, even if Iran decides to allocate part of its budget to protect it, and even if Russia surprises the world by financing the regime to compensate for what it is losing as a result of economic sanctions. Furthermore, the decision has already been made to impose irreversible regional and international isolation on the Syrian regime. This is no matter how much the leaders of the regime in Damascus imagine this to be temporary isolation that will be overcome or retracted with the passing of time. Here, the decision of the Arab League to suspend Syria and to warn the Syrian government that measures would be taken to impose economic sanctions, if it does not ratify the protocol for the protection of civilians under effective Arab supervision, is of the utmost importance. This is because it is not just floating there without a timeline, nor is it mere threats and empty words.

The Arab League's firm intervention over the Syrian issue with such determination carries great regional and international significance. For one thing, it came ahead of foreign intervention in order to ensure that the situation in Syria remains an Arab - not Western- issue. It also circumvents the over-zealousness of Russia and its ilk in the defiant camp in preventing the UN Security Council from adequately dealing with Syria. The Arab League's move also places Arab responsibility at the same level as Turkish responsibility, and precludes Turkey and Iran from "owning" alone the fate of Syria. Indeed, radical change has taken place within the League of Arab States, after it had for too long resisted addressing the Syrian issue, and it has finally found itself forced to take the gloves off with the Syrian government. So what now?

There were no defections within the ranks of the Syrian diplomatic corps like those that took place in the Libyan diplomatic corps, where diplomats defected from the regime both individually and collectively. For instance, the Libyan Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Ibrahim Dabashi, was the first to speak of a "no-fly zone". He also mobilized the members of the UN mission into a collective defection that eventually led to a precedent at the Security Council, in the form of resolutions 1970 and 1973. By contrast, the Syrian mission to the United Nations seems cohesive, so far, under the leadership of its Ambassador Bashar Jaafari, who is lecturing today about imperialism and is denying that there are incidents of repression by security services in Syria, which have so far led to the death of over 3500 people. But the defections that have occurred within the military are more important than defections that have yet to occur in the diplomatic corps. So perhaps defections in the army from within the Alawi community will come to place the sect ahead of the family, something that would ensure a less bloody transition from the Assad regime to a comprehensive system of government not based on monopoly. Such a scenario would be welcomed by many Syrians, who do not want the Salafis, the Alawis, the Muslim Brotherhood or the Secularists to monopolize power.

In truth, concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria are not unfounded, especially in view of what is happening in other arenas of the Arab uprisings, from Tunisia to Egypt, to Libya and Yemen. This could mean that Islamists will come to dominate the scene, particularly "moderate" Islamists, with notable encouragement from the West and some Arabs, and perhaps from the Turks as well. In truth, the rise of Islamists to power is and will be met with welcome soon, from Washington to London and Paris, under the pretext of [respecting] the rules of the democratic game. The fact of the matter is that there is much to be concerned about behind the West's enthusiasm for "moderate Islam," which has come to power in Tunisia and Libya, and also in Egypt, with wars against Arab women, whom the West claims to be supporting while turning a blind eye to what is being done to exclude and single them out. This is only one clear aspect of the outcome of Islamists rising to power with help from the West, at the expense of Arab modernists in general and Arab women in particular. The issue is extremely dangerous and it must be confronted no matter how strong the yearning for the Arab Spring to bloom might be.

With this, and even if the Barack Obama Administration and European governments are preparing to accept the rule of "moderate Islam" in Syria, Bashar al-Assad's regime no longer has a base of support in the country that can allow it to remain in power. The regime has crossed every line when it decided to settle the matter using a security approach and kill its own people, and there is no turning back today from the decision to oust it among the majority of the people in Syria. Al-Assad is not their savior from what is worse, but he has rather become the "evil" they know too well and want to get rid of, even if what is coming is indeed worse. This is remarkable in that it makes clear the extent to which the Syrian regime has become a bane for the majority of the people. The regime has surrounded itself with hatred, not just in the neighboring countries in the affairs of whom the regime has arrogantly interfered, but specifically at the domestic level, and it is well past the point of no return.

The responsibility borne by the Syrian opposition is two-fold compared to the responsibility borne by that of Libya, Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen. Falling into the trap of "moderate Islam" to be the vehicle that brings the Muslim Brotherhood to power will come at a high cost for it, and at an even higher cost for Syria. It is the duty of the divided Syrian opposition not to blind its eyes under the pretext of getting rid of the Assad regime at any cost. Its fundamental duty is to not mislead or fall prey to deception and put Syria in a tough spot. The regime in Damascus has begun the countdown to its end, but Syria has begun the countdown to an unknown fate, unless the opposition realizes what is happening immediately and puts a stop to the polarization and fragmentation.

Bashar Al-Assad's regime will leave whether it agrees to reform for which it is far too late, and agrees to radical revolutionary reform that would topple the Baath Party's monopoly of power, or whether it remains arrogantly obstinate and perseveres on the path of "let me die with the Philistines". The same goes if Assad takes a bow and leaves to an Arab country that might host him, or to Russia which would supposedly welcome him. As for Syria, it is in fragile state, and this is what the Syrian opposition, the Arab League, Turkey and Western governments, as well as Russia and its ilk, should each be thinking about. Iran has its own agenda, as it sees Syria, Iraq and Lebanon as its backyard, and there is no hope that it will think of the fate of Syria as an Arab country. What's in common between Iran and the West here is that Syria is seen by both from the looking glass of Islam and the regional sectarian conflict, - not just between Sunnis and Shiites, but also between so-called extremist Islam and moderate Islam.

The Arab League is behaving with a new and unprecedented responsibility that can be channeled to a certain extent under the broad title of the "collective responsibility to protect" civilians from the regimes that repress them. It is a new and a necessary role, and the Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil El-Araby deserves praise here, because he has moved away from a bad start on the Syrian issue to a pioneering position in the interest of Arab peoples - not at their expense in the name of backing Arab regimes. This is a qualitative shift that has come under the leadership of Nabil El-Araby. Also, Jordanian Monarch, King Abdullah II has proven his courage by being the first Arab leader to speak of the need for Bashar Al-Assad to step down, for the sake of both his people and his country. Post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia were disappointing, because their hesitancy has reinforced the opinion that what is happening there is a coup d'état, not a revolution, an awakening or a spring. The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are playing a leading and pioneering role, particularly in Libya, Yemen and Syria, and especially through the exceptional role being played by Qatar's Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim. Yet there are questions, reservations and accusations about suspicious roles being played, particularly in terms of the partnership with the West in fostering "moderate Islam", which has become the headline for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups to power.

It is the duty of the Arab League to be fully aware of these important matters, especially as it is the League of the Arabs, not of Islam, whether moderate or radical. It is the duty of the Arab League to be concerned with what is happening to the rights of the modernists, women's rights and human rights in the arenas that follow change as well as in those that precede it. Syria is of the utmost importance at this level, and the Arab League's responsibility is two-fold, especially if Barack Obama's administration, Nicolas Sarkozy's government or that of David Cameron, are resorting to "moderate Islam" and eradicating Arab moderation all at once. This is indeed suspicious. Those in the ranks of Arab moderation must awaken from being dumbfounded by the shock of what the Arab Spring has produced so far, to take it upon themselves to participate in shaping their own destiny.

The regimes are departing, from Tunisia to Egypt, to Libya, to Syria and to Yemen. What matters most is early participation in shaping the destiny of the Arabs, so as for the Arabs not to fall into a cycle of organized, creative or random chaos, or the kind that was essentially aimed at favoring the Islamists over the military, in order to exclude the modernists from participating.