Syrian officials reject call to stand aside as country veers toward civil war

The Takeaway

Arab League officials this weekend floated a proposal for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to resign and hand power to a top deputy, paving the way for new elections and a unity government with protesters.

On Monday, Syrian officials confirmed what had been expected: there’s no way Syria’s leaders are voluntarily giving up power. At least not any time soon. Syrian officials called it a conspiratorial scheme — and a sign that the protesters are in fact being run for foreign officials.

Assad’s refusal to hand over power, acknowledge the protester’s concerns and the failure of the Arab League observer mission seem to indicate that the country is on the verge of — if not already in the middle of — outright civil war.

The Arab League has called on the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council to take action to protect protesters. Russia has pledged to veto any move against Syria, however. Western nations, with an eye on Iran and still trying to get out of Afghanistan, are also reluctant to intervene militarily in another nation.

Joshua Landis, co-director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the Arab League doesn’t have much power or influence left at this point.

“The Arab League is as divided as the West is on this issue,” he said. “Nobody wants to intervene, and that’s the big problem.”

Landis said the Arab League is paralyzed by a lack of consensus, with a group led by wealthy Gulf states, like Qatar, favoring intervention, while poorer, larger Mediterranean states, Algeria and Lebanon for example, stand opposed.

Ultimately, the two sides agreed to ask Assad to step down and extend the Arab monitoring mission indefinitely. With Assad’s refusal to step down, though, it’s unclear where the League will go next.

Landis said the Syrian opposition is in disarray. Though they have increasing numbers, guns, and are certainly well stocked in courage, they’re not well led and they haven’t been able to move beyond the core cities where the revolution started.

“They have called for an end to this monitoring mission,” Landis said. “Their leader, is under attack by their own membership, who have called him a dictator, who don’t like that he’s opened negotiations with other opposition groups.”

Landis said that Turkey, or a united Arab League, will have to decide to intervene militarily if anything is to change. He said the United States was unlikely to get involved, except in a support role, especially during a campaign season.

“(Obama) doesn’t want to jump into the middle of a civil war,” Landis said.

Assad feels confident now, Landis said, because European nations and the United States are standing aside and the Arab League is paralyzed. He’s been trying to keep the protests contained enough, and keep the death toll low enough, that no one feels compelled to act. But the Syrian people are suffering for it.

“The economy is deteriorating,” Landis said. “The income of Syrians has fallen 50 percent in the last nine months.”

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