x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Danger of another civil war as Syria's isolation deepens

Arabs are increasingly turning away from the Assad regime, but that does not mean there is an end in sight to Syria's suffering.

Several months ago, 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 Qaddafi had worked hard for decades to make himself a regional pariah. His bizarre behaviour, 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 Qaddafi's threats to commit massacres against his own people, Arab leaders 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 Arab leaders. Even those who had committed outrages of their own did not appear to have what it would take to become as reviled and isolated as Qaddafi.

But the results of a recent poll released this week by the Arab American Institute, which I head, suggested that Syria's President Bashar Al Assad may well be on the way to assuming the role as the region's new outcast. The poll, conducted in late September and early October by Zogby Research Services, surveyed over 4,000 Arabs in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

What clearly emerged was the degree to which the Syrian government had become isolated. 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, whom they most respected. Scoring higher than any other Arab head of state was Mr Al Assad.

Here's some of what we learnt this time around. In the first place, the overwhelming majority of respondents sided with the Syrians who are demonstrating against the government (with support for them ranging from 83 per cent in Morocco to 100 per cent in Jordan). And when asked whether Mr Al Assad could continue to govern, the highest affirmative ratings he received were a mere 15 per cent in Morocco and 14 per cent in Egypt, with the rest in low single digits.

Most telling was the scant support the Syrian leader received in Lebanon. From results in the same poll, we can see that Lebanese still gave Hizbollah a net favourable rating and more than one-half of Lebanese Shiites even maintained a favourable view of Iran's role in Syria. But in questions dealing with the Syrian leader, it was clear that whatever support Mr Al Assad might have commanded from some Lebanese was gone.

There are other important considerations that emerged from these results. First is that Turkey's intervention won majority support in every Arab country. And Saudi Arabia's role was viewed positively in every country besides Lebanon. The United States was ranked lowest in terms of its Syria policy, with Iran close behind. This should serve as a cautionary note for US policymakers.

Despite the appeals of some in the Syrian opposition and the taunts of US conservative hawks that President Barack Obama "must do more", US interference in Syria would not be welcomed, particularly not by observers in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Syria is not Libya, despite the regime's brutal behaviour and its regional isolation. It is not an arena for Nato engagement. Such interference would only create tension and possible conflicts beyond Syria's borders.

The Arab League sent a mission to Syria last week to give the regime a last opportunity to end its violence and begin a national dialogue leading to reform and transition. It would be best to lend support to such regional efforts to resolve this crisis. But it is of concern that neither the government nor the opposition appears interested, at this point, in such negotiations.

The Assads still appear to believe that they can win. They know they have the support of Syrian groups that are fearful of change. Meanwhile the opposition, outraged by the continuing violence, has shown no sign of weakening. To the contrary, they have been emboldened by international support and are meeting the government's intransigence with their own harder position.

All sides must be wary of this situation. As gruesome as it has been to watch unarmed demonstrators being shot in the streets, it could get much worse. What is especially worrying now is that disaffected members of the Syrian military and other dissidents are resorting to violence. The conflict could escalate into an all-out civil war. The consequences could be grave, and not only for Syria, but for the entire region.

Alarm bells ought to be going off everywhere. It can be in no one's interest to allow the situation to continue to spin out of control, which it surely will if left unchecked. The Arab League initiative, regional efforts to end the bloodshed and serious negotiations leading to a transition towards a free and democratic Syria should receive broad international backing.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute