x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Monitoring deal shows pressure by Syria's allies

It remains to be seen whether Syria will abide by the Arab League deal it signed on Monday, but at least it shows that Bashar Al Assad's regime is losing leverage.

By the end of the month, the Arab League is expected to send an observer mission to Syria as part of an amended deal to protect civilians. After two months of resistance, Syria only signed the deal on Monday in an apparent about-face.

Many have dismissed this as a ploy by the regime to buy time. That may be true in part. But cold calculations in Damascus are now beginning to accept the Assads' limited options.

Accepting the deal was a major concession. Since it was put on the table, regime propaganda had focused on discrediting the mission as foreign interference; and state-run television stations trotted out interviews with "ordinary" Syrians who said so.

Explaining Monday's turnaround, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said the Arab League had made "significant" amendments - even though the amendments did not change the substance of the deal. Mr Moallem added that Russia had advised Damascus to sign.

It is the second explanation that is the more convincing. In short, Syria's change of heart is because of pressure from allies, not just Russia but also Iran. Last week, the Iranian diplomat Dr Hossain Amirabdullahian visited Gulf countries, stating at the time that an important element of discussions with regional leaders was to avoid foreign intervention in Syria and find a peaceful way out of the crisis.

There is a symbolic significance in that Damascus has finally capitulated to someone's, anyone's, efforts to rein in its behaviour.

But the deal also includes some practical ways to curb the bloodshed. If implemented, it would: lead to the release of jailed protesters; allow media to cover events freely; and enable the Arab League mission to interview organisations and individuals without restrictions or harassment and visit prisons, police stations, hospitals and detention centres. These are substantial points.

The mission is unlikely to end the bloodshed by itself, but it might offer clearer insights into the situation - and information is crucial to Arab League actions. Also on Monday, opposition members in Tunis said there was now a clearer idea of how a border buffer zone could help to end the bloodshed, an idea that is seen as an alternative to military intervention.

The success of the Arab League mission is in everyone's interest, including the regime's. If the mission is blocked, the Arab League will have no choice but to refer the situation to the UN, making foreign intervention more likely. Damascus many not understand this, but its allies do.