It’s been a lousy week for Bashar al-Assad. First came news that Syria was to be suspended from the Arab League despite the complicating fact that Assad still technically holds the presidency of the Arab League Council, the chief decision-making body of the organization. Then, last night, King Abdullah of Jordan went on BBC to say that if he were in Assad’s shoes, he’d step down. Today, the European Union passed a new round of sanctions against Syria, adding 18 more nationals to its expanding list of mainly military figures within Assad’s inner circle who will have their European assets frozen and travel bans imposed on them.
The Arab League had several motives for suspending Syria from its roster. On November 3, the League had announced a “roadmap” for negotiated reforms with the Assad regime aimed at ending nine months of state-perpetrated atrocities; these reforms would begin by removing tanks and armored vehicles from city streets. Just as the roadmap was being hailed on both sides as a testament to peace in our time, nineteen more people were brutally killed in Syria, eighteen of them in Homs, now the capital and principal battlefield of the revolution, and one in Damascus. Gunfire and tank shells were the accompanying soundtrack to credulous triumphalism as Al Jazeera’s Cairo correspondent Jane Arraf noted the League’s jubilant mood at the time: “Secretary-General [Nabil el-Araby] is calling this a paradigm shift in recent relations with Syria, which has huge concerns not just for Syria's neighbors but for the entire Arab community.”
Humiliating the League further, the United Nations, in the week since the roadmap was struck, found that 60 more Syrians were murdered (activists put this figure closer to 100), bringing Assad’s total nine-month death toll to at minimum 3,500 (that figure is likely much higher as many bodies have not yet been “registered” at state morgues). The Strategic Research and Communications Centre run by Ausama Monajed, a member of the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council (SNC), claims that “heavy artillery, tanks, armored units, anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine guns, nail bombs, and snipers” are still being used in Homs against the protesters. (For an excellent map of the protest activity in this battleground city, click here.)
French foreign minister Alain Juppe was swift to declare the Arab League initiative a dead letter and Assad himself a political nullity. Paris also signaled its intent of recognizing the SNC (so far, only Libya and Tunisia do) and of taking a case to the U.N. for “international protection” for the beleaguered people of Homs.
This is a start. But the SNC, which is still struggling to gain international legitimacy as a government-in-exile, thinks that “protection” can take the form of “Arab and international observers... to oversee the situation on the ground.”
Indeed there was a previous U.N. fact-finding mission under the authority of U.N. high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay, but it didn’t accomplish much: when that delegation drove through Homs in August, protestors beseeched the members to exit their vehicles and come and inspect the devastation up close. They didn’t. One man even said, “We are protected now because you are here.” Sure enough, when the delegation left the city, the regime started shooting again. Independent human rights monitors and scores of smuggled-in journalists have already confirmed the situation on the ground—namely, crimes against humanity. What’s needed now is action to stop those crimes.
The regime’s men continue to torture people, Syrian activists credibly allege, by electrocuting their genitals; urinating in their mouths and forcing them to swallow; serially raping women and children (the prettier girls go to the mukhabarat section chief, while the plainer ones are left for the warden’s own amusement); and ripping out fingernails and eyeballs. The opposition may not be interested in violence, but violence is clearly interested in the opposition.
The rebel fighting taking place in Homs has been conducted mainly by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) under the leadership of Col. Riad al-Asa’ad, who along with a handful of other former senior Syrian military commanders, is now headquartered in Antakya, Turkey. The FSA doesn’t recognize the SNC because the SNC is formally against military defections as well as any kind of armed defensive campaign. Al-Asa’ad told the New York Times in late October: “We are an army, we are in the opposition, and we are prepared for military operations. If the international community provides weapons, we can topple the regime in a very, very short time.” Sure, that may be bluster, but then, there is a reason why the regime hasn’t been able to retake Homs so easily as it did Hama and Deraa and Jisr al-Shughour.
The SNC must decide at what point does peaceful resistance becomes a suicide pact.
Michael Weiss is communications director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based foreign policy think tank.