In one of the most surprising developments of Syria’s 8-month-old uprising, King Abdullah of Jordan, Syria’s neighbor to the south, became the first Arab leader Monday to publicly call for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Jordan has itself experienced murmurs of political discontent in recent months, and King Abdullah’s remarks, in an interview with the BBC, were perhaps the strongest indication yet that the protests roiling the Arab world have shaken the region’s leaders.
King Abdullah’s remarks come just days after the notoriously fractious Arab League came together in a rare, nearly unanimous vote over the weekend to suspend Syria’s membership in the body, after the Assad regime was found to have blatantly violated an October ceasefire agreement. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, released a report documenting systematic attacks on civilians and suggesting that the Assad regime should be investigated for crimes against humanity.
The developments have ratcheted up the international pressure on the Syrian government, which has killed more than 3,500 people in a bloody, protracted crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising. The Arab League said it planned to impose political and economic sanctions on the Syrian government in its harshest rebuke yet, joining Western nations such as the United States and United Kingdom in calling for the violence to stop.
Syria, for its part, lashed out at the Arab League, accusing the coalition of doing the West’s bidding. The regime marshaled thousands of supporters in pro-government protests in the capital of Damascus over the weekend, with Assad supporters denouncing Arab Leaders as the “tails of Obama.” Foreign embassies were attacked during the rallies, and the Syrian regime called for an urgent Arab League summit to address the censure.
The vote and subsequent protests point to Syria’s increasing isolation not just among the international community in general but, specifically, within the Arab world, which has been roiled by pro-democracy protests. Even aside from Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, which have all undergone their own revolutions, other nations, such as Saudia Arabia and Turkey, have been vocal in their support of the Syrian opposition and their condemnation of the Assad regime.
The Human Rights Watch report may spur additional international action, including, perhaps, another vote by the United Nations Security Council. A proposed resolution condemning the violence in Syria was vetoed by Russia and China, Syria’s traditional allies, in early October. But evidence of crimes against humanity, coupled with the Arab League vote, may be too much for even Russia and China to ignore.
Human Rights Watch focused much of its reporting on Homs, a city in western Syria that has been the site of much of the discontent, especially among Sunni Muslims, who comprise the majority of the Syrian population but have been historically disenfranchised by the Alawite regime. The Syrian government has systematically crushed protests in Homs, in an effort to prevent the protests there from spreading to other Sunni-dominated cities throughout the country.
“Homs is a microcosm of the Syrian government’s brutality,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in describing the organization’s findings. “The Arab League needs to tell President Assad that violating their agreement has consequences, and that it now supports Security Council action to end the carnage.”
The city of Homs is especially strategically important, experts say, because it has the potential to turn into a base of operations for Syria’s loosely organization opposition movement. It is also near the Turkish border, and Turkey is perhaps in the best position of all the Arab states to provide some amount of organizational and military support for the opposition movement. There have been rumors that Turkey, perhaps as part of an Arab-led coalition, might establish a military buffer zone along the border near Homs, to provide refuge to opposition figures and civilians fleeing the violence.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former State Department official, wrote in The Atlantic last week that the U.S. should urge the Arab League to support a Security Council resolution not just condemning the violence in Syria but, specifically, setting up buffer zones along the border, led by Turkey and perhaps with the help of NATO.
These buffer zones would provide safe passage to civilians fleeing the humanitarian disaster in Syria, Slaughter said, and sanctuary to opposition figures plotting to undermine the Assad regime. Providing significant international support to the opposition might be the only way to convince the Syrian military and business elite — two key constituencies that could very well decide the outcome of the uprising — that the Assad regime is no longer worth backing. Providing safe haven and organizational support to the opposition could encourage military defections and, consequently, turn the tide of the revolution.
“Civilian protection is going to require a buffer zone and safe routes for wounded Syrians and refugees fleeing violence to reach sanctuary,” Slaughter wrote. “The Syrian government is massacring soldiers and civilians in Homs to prevent that city from becoming something like a Syrian version of Libya’s Benghazi, the stronghold of the opposition and their base of operations in a country-wide conflict.”