The Arab League’s actions earlier this year against Libya were not necessarily best understood as the product of a revolution in the region or in that organization, for Qaddafi was a unique figure. He was widely loathed and mocked by Arab leaders, who were glad to be rid of him.
But Syria is different, having been at the heart of the Arab world for centuries and playing in recent decades a key role in inter-Arab rivalries and in the never-ending Arab struggle against Israel. For Arab leaders to dump the Syrian regime is something far more significant.
That is what they did on Sunday, voting (with only Iraq and Lebanon taking exception) for a travel ban on Syrian officials, a freeze on Syrian official assets in Arab capitals, and an end to transactions with Syria’s central bank. What’s more, they asked the U.N. Security Council to adopt similar sanctions and make then both global and mandatory. This is a huge political, financial, and psychological blow to the Assad regime, whose only ally today is Iran. No doubt this played some role in the Arab League’s vote: They want to reduce Persian, Shia influences in “their” region. And they do not want to be blamed for the astonishing bloodbath in Syria, where over 4,000 have now been killed by the regime in apparently endless attacks on Syrian cities. In countries where open debate is now possible, including Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, politicians may think it wise to denounce and punish the Assad regime, which reminds voters of the local despots they just overthrew. Finally, the smart money is now betting against Assad, with the demonstrations continuing and a “Free Syrian Army” of mostly Sunni defectors growing into a serious problem for the Syrian regime. So people want to be on the winning side.
It is also striking that the spokesman for the Arabs was again — as in the Libya case — Hamad bin Jassem, the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar. Whatever Qatar is doing, it is not exporting democracy — for there is absolutely none back home, when the Amir and Sheik Hamad basically run the show. Certainly they are showing once again that Qatar’s nimble diplomacy and its unlimited funding for such operations (it sent money, trainers, and guns to Libya’s opposition) is giving this tiny nation a larger role in regional politics today than any other. One has to assume that Qatar has contacts today with the “Free Syrian Army” and that, as in Libya, this will pay off with more influence when the regime falls. With Egypt mired in demonstrations and the Saudi leadership old and enfeebled, Qatar is now the leading Arab voice.
When Hamad bin Jassem said on Sunday that “if the international community does not take us seriously in this, then I cannot guarantee that there will be no foreign interference” in Syria, he was driving another nail in the coffin of the Assad regime. It will fall, and Arab leaders are smart enough to know that the longer that takes the harder it will be to put the pieces back together. They want a Sunni-led Syria oriented toward them and away from Iran, an outcome that is also in our interest and will weaken not only Iran but Hezbollah and Hamas as well. They do not want a Syria that is broke and mired in sectarian violence, so they are acting with what is for them unparalleled speed.
There were elections in Tunisia in October, and Egyptians start voting later this week. From the experiences of the dictators in those countries Assad has learned nothing. But his Arab neighbors appear to have learned something after all: When the day comes that you can stay in power only by shooting at the crowds, it’s too late.