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Assad's Broken Promises

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
November 3, 2011


Despite a pledge to end its crackdown, Syrian security forces continued to suppress anti-regime protestors, killing at least eighteen on Thursday in the city of Homs (al-Jazeera). The violence comes the day after embattled President Bashar al-Assad agreed to a peace plan (LAT) brokered by the Arab League that calls for an end to the bloodshed, negotiations with the opposition, release of political prisoners, and reentry of journalists and human rights monitors. The regime's intention to implement the deal will be tested over the next few days as large protests are anticipated following Friday prayers. Dialogue with opposition groups, which remain divided on a number of issues, is set to begin in Cairo within two weeks. The United Nations estimates that well over three thousand people have been killed since the uprising began in March.

Washington expressed skepticism on the deal, saying the agreement may simply be an attempt to "string out diplomacy" with "half-steps." China, which has helped thwart Western attempts to sanction Syria, welcomed the Arab League deal (Xinhua).

The Syrian crisis also carries implications for the power calculus in the region. Turkey's growing censure of Assad has prompted Syria's main ally Iran to revive its "age-old strategy" of supporting attacks on Turkish soil (CNN) by the Kurdish separatist group PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), writes Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay. "Either Ankara will win and Assad will fall, or Tehran will win and Ankara, hurt by PKK attacks, will throw in the towel and let Syria be," he says. In Foreign Affairs, Iran expert Geneive Abdo writes: "For Iran, Assad's Syria is the front line of defense against the United States and Israel." Without Syria, she says, "the second line of defense--Hezbollah and Hamas--would crumble."

Some experts see signs for a potential civil war between the army and Sunni defectors in Syria, amid growing sectarian tensions. The International Institute for Strategic Studies says hundreds of low-level Sunni soldiers have defected from a minority Alawite (a Shia sect)-led army, and could pose a growing challenge to Assad.

Meanwhile, Syria's opposition movement remains divided. Randa Slim of the New America foundation writes that the main opposition groups (ForeignPolicy)--the Turkey-based Syrian National Council and the Damascus-based National Coordination Committee--disagree on two critical questions: whether Assad must go, and the need for foreign intervention.

CFR's Micah Zenko says the international community's "mismanagement and overreach" in Libya has "doomed" the potential for a similar type of humanitarian-based intervention in Syria. NATO's claims of impartiality in the conflict were belied by its actions, he writes, including allowing the rebels to smuggle weapons and operate aircraft in the no-fly zone. In recent statements, NATO has ruled out the prospect for such intervention in Syria (al-Jazeera).

A Washington Post editorial says if violence continues, Western governments should push the Arab League to take strong action, such as support for a UN Security Council resolution threatening sanctions. It says "a pivotal player will be Turkey, which is reportedly already sheltering leaders of a rebel Syrian army in a refugee camp." Syria expert Amr al-Azm writes that the top concern for Assad "has always been the emergence of a Benghazi scenario," in which military defectors are able to gain a foothold from which to support a rebellion, bolstered by Turkish military intervention.

Background Materials:

American Options in Syria, CFR Policy Innovation Memo

Iran and Syria, United States Institute of Peace

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