Assad digs in for the long haul | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 14.11.2011
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Assad digs in for the long haul

Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria is proving resilient, despite suspension from the Arab League and more European Union sanctions. There is growing recognition that his government is prepared to pay any price to survive.

President Assad of Syria

Assad is successfully absorbing increasing international pressure

The Syrian government remained defiant in face of the unprecedented pressure being exerted from all sides this weekend.

The European Union tightened the noose, slapping new sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad's regime and urging the United Nations to take action to protect civilians.

The EU foreign ministers blacklisted another 18 Syrians, mostly members of the military, bringing to 74 the number of Assad's inner circle subject to an EU assets freeze and travel ban. Syria is also no longer able to access funds from the European Investment Bank (EIB), further tightening economic pressure on Damascus.

Arab League summit in Cairo

The Arab League is punishing Syria, at least temporarily

As French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe put it, this was deemed necessary because of the "bloody stubbornness" of Assad's regime.

Surprising unity

Perhaps of more significance was Saturday's surprise vote to suspend the country from the Arab League, the 22-nation bloc that Syria co-founded in 1945.

Andre Bank, research fellow at the Hamburg-based German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), thinks the most surprising aspect of the decision was its unanimity. Only Lebanon and Yemen defended Syria, while Iraq abstained from the vote. "It was a little surprising, yes," Bank told Deutsche Welle. "That the measure went so far, and that there was such a clear majority."

Rime Allaf, associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank in the UK, agrees. "Even the Syrians were surprised by the strength of the decision," she told Deutsche Welle.

"This is without any doubt the biggest crisis that the Syrian regime has faced," she added. "For the first time in the history of Syria you've got the entire Arab League, save one or two countries, talking about economic and political sanctions and withdrawing ambassadors. It's the combination of measures that surprised a lot of us. We expected the threat of suspension, but not so many different clauses."

But Muriel Asseburg, head of the Middle East and Africa Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), is unconvinced that the suspension will bring any serious change on the ground in Syria.

"There's not necessarily any direct influence in the sense that it will stop the violence," she told Deutsche Welle. "It's a political signal, and one that will hurt the Syrian government. But I think that the Syrian leadership has decided it has to suppress the opposition through violence and repression."

"I expect there will be more violence and more chaos in the short-term," added Allaf. "Because the actions of the Syrian regime in the past is that first they get mad, and then they think about it. The violence has escalated in recent weeks and in fact the killings have become more regular."

Walid al-Muallim, Syrian Foreign Minister

Walid al-Muallim called the suspension 'shameful'

Conditions attached

While this was dramatic - it is only the second time that the League has resorted to such a move - the suspension should not be confused with an outright expulsion. If Assad meets the conditions he agreed to in the Arab League's peace plan earlier this month, Syria will resume its position.

And the response from Syria to the Arab League's motion was not evasive - the regime did not seek to make excuses - but defiant.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem condemned the suspension as "shameful," and warned that the government in Damascus would not budge. "The decision of the Arab League to suspend Syria represents a dangerous step," Muallem told a packed news conference in Damascus on Monday.

"Today there is a crisis in Syria which pays the price of its strong positions. Syria will not budge and will emerge stronger... and plots against Syria will fail," said the minister, before claiming there was evidence of international interference in the Arab League's decision.

Anti-Assad demonstrators

Protests have now lasted eight months, but can they continue?

Allaf thinks Assad's regime is increasingly clutching at straws. "I think they're a bit lost," she said. "They're shooting off several different types of responses - the mature, calm one - 'of course we already did what the Arab League asked us to'." At the same time, Syria threatened that the situation could become as bad as "a hundred Afghanistans in the region," she added.

Small price to pay

Perhaps there is good reason for Assad's belligerence. The last eight months of bloodshed have shown that there is a limit to how much Syria's domestic affairs can be influenced - even by regional powers.

Andre Bank notes how little impact overtures from countries like Turkey and Egypt have had in recent months. "I don't think this will change much on the Syrian side," he said. "That is not necessarily the failure of the Arab League, it is much more the complete lack of any chance to influence politics in Syria."

Assad seems to feel secure enough for now. "There seems to be a recognition in the Syrian government that it can last quite a few months yet, despite the external pressure," said Bank. "And the question is how everyone will react - how will the regional and international powers react, and how will the Syrian population react. Will the protesters just go home at some point?"

For Assad, then, it is all about playing for time. The regime appears to have decided that EU sanctions and regional isolation are a small price to pay for survival. "Syria could become an internationally isolated pariah state, but the regime would survive," believes Bank. "Survival is clearly the main interest of the Assad regime. It might not last in the long-term, but in the next few weeks and months it should be able to stay the course."

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Rob Mudge

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