Middle East

Hopes and fears for Arab mission to Syria

Demonstrators in the Baba Amro district of Homs
Image caption Many question whether the Arab mission will be able to defuse the situation in flashpoint towns like Homs

As the main contingent of Arab League observers begins its work in Syria, many questions hang over the prospects of success for the peace mission, and Syria's intentions towards it.

Does the sudden apparent upsurge of violence, especially in Idlib province near the border with Turkey, signal a last-minute effort by the regime's forces to eliminate pockets of resistance in a key strategic area, in advance of an expected halt to the violence?

That would imply that President Bashar al-Assad and his inner circle are serious about implementing the Arab peace plan - an assumption made by few analysts, and even fewer of the regime's opponents.

They believe that the plan would spell the end of the regime, as it would be forced to end the armed repression which has proven the only way of keeping control in many areas.

"Bashar has no alternative - he cannot open up, even with the Arab initiative," said one senior Arab official with long experience of dealing with the Syrians.

"If he does, he goes - it would be his death warrant. It's that simple. He will use every trick in the book to stop it."

Toughing it out

Under the peace plan, all armed forces are to be withdrawn, and all prisoners released, as hundreds of Arab monitors - and the international and Arab press - are allowed to roam the country unhindered.

Early on in the uprising, the authorities announced several times that troops had pulled out of cities such as Deraa and Hama, only for them to move back in shortly afterwards, after control was lost again.

So the expectation would be that large parts of the country would fall out of the government's grasp if the plan is fully implemented.

Only the two biggest cities, Damascus itself, and Aleppo in the north, have remained relatively untouched by the violence, although incidents have reportedly begun to multiply even there, despite all the regime's best efforts to prevent them.

With international and internal pressures building up more strongly day by day, has the regime read the writing on the wall and decided to relinquish power or open up to a transition as gracefully as is possible in the current situation?

That is hard to imagine.

Other Arab leaders embattled by uprisings have tended to live in a bubble, convincing themselves that their people really love them, and that they can survive if they just tough it out with the militants.

Image caption Recent Syrian military exercises have been interpreted as a warning to the outside world

The Syrian leadership seems to be no exception. Virtually daily, for hours on end, state television shows huge loyalist rallies in Damascus and other cities, with slogans rejecting outside interference and supporting the country's independent decision-making.

In fact, doomed or not, Mr Assad does seem to be standing on rather more solid ground than some of his former Arab counterparts who lost the struggle.

Sections of society nervous about the prospect of a takeover by the Sunni majority - possibly tinged by Islamic radicals - seem to be sticking by him, including his own Alawite community, many Christians and other minorities, and even Sunni middle class businessmen and merchants who have benefited from his regime.

Some of that support may be dwindling as living conditions worsen. Some analysts believe an economic collapse may be the factor that will bring the regime down, sooner than many believe.

The country's armed forces have again been carrying out live-fire manoeuvres, also widely publicised in the state media, to convey the message that the military remains both unified and capable of dealing with any threat, internal or external.

Despite the stresses that the military must have faced in dealing with the uprising, there has been no sign so far of whole units defecting, or of moves within the armed forces - where Sunnis make up the bulk of the rank and file, though Alawites hold the key positions of control - to stage a coup.

That would be hard to do, given pervasive controls built in to the military structures.

It would also involve taking over the centres of power in Damascus. For many years, the only military unit allowed to approach or pass through the capital is the ultra-loyal Fourth Division, commanded by Bashar al-Assad's ruthless younger brother Maher.

Stalling tactics?

All of this suggests that Mr Assad and the extended family and friends who represent the inner circle of power may well believe that they can retain their grip if they go through the motions of cooperating with the Arab initiative and play for time, while continuing to try to crush the opposition and blaming "armed terrorists" for the violence.

Image caption Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi says the mission will be able to move freely within Syria

That at least is what was feared by activists and human rights organisations as the Arab observers prepared to start their mission.

The most-quoted human rights group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, appealed to the Arab League not to allow the mission to "throw a lifeline" to the regime by allowing it to gain time.

It said there was no way the small teams of observers, expected to total a few hundred by mid-January, could possibly monitor scores of trouble-spots and hundreds of jails and improvised detention centres set up by the regime's 17 security agencies all over the country.

The Arab League's Secretary-General, Nabil al-Arabi, has said it should be apparent within a week whether the regime is serious about implementing the plan.

Especially after the latest bout of bloodletting, the Americans, Turks and others are also in no mood to stand by and allow Mr Assad to string the Arab initiative along.

By eventually signing the Arab League protocol - quite a tough and strict document - the regime was tacitly admitting that it was in a tight corner despite its defiance and bravado in the face of all the sanctions and pressures.

In theory, it has committed itself to ending all the violence and moving towards what Foreign Minister Walid Muallim described on Monday as "a sound, modern Syrian model of democracy and pluralism".

Activists and protestors who have seen the dark side that keeps the regime in power find that hard to believe.

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