Pressure is mounting on Arab governments to take a stance against Syria’s brutal crackdown of the popular uprising at a time when western states are adopting initial sanctions to isolate the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The Arab League played an instrumental role in facilitating the international military intervention in Libya, with its call for a no-fly zone. But while the US targets figures in the regime with sanctions and the European Union prepares similar measures, the League has issued only a general statement saying peaceful protesters in Arab states deserved “support, not bullets”.
The Syria crisis is not officially on the agenda of Thursday’s Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting to discuss the next secretary-general of the organisation. But diplomats acknowledge that a discussion on Syria is becoming inevitable. “The silence is embarrassing,” admits one senior official in the region.
Arab officials said that the situation in Syria, where at the weekend troops shelled the old quarter of the southern town of Deraa, the epicentre of the unrest, was “going out of control” and would force itself on the League’s meeting agenda.
The dilemma for neighbours is that Syria is far more strategically important than Libya. The uprising might provoke civil strife that could have ramifications well beyond the country’s borders.
True, many states in the region have difficult relations with Mr Assad, blaming him for destabilising the Middle East with his support for Lebanon’s Hizbollah militant group and the Palestinian Hamas.
Much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia and other states, Syria’s close alliance with Iran has facilitated Tehran’s efforts to expand its influence in the Arab world. Efforts to prise Damascus away from Tehran, however, have been unsuccessful.
One official with ties to Tehran says the Iranian leadership is “terrified” by the prospect of an Assad regime collapse in Damascus, which could dramatically alter the balance of power in the region against Iran.
Several Arab officials also say that at a time of turbulent change in the Arab world, with regimes afraid of facing similar uprisings and worried about further instability, the fear of chaos in Syria outweighs the desire to see Mr Assad undermined.
“Everyone is concerned about Syria but everyone is also worried about the day after,” says a former Arab official. “Still, things are moving at a pace that is faster than anyone imagined and governments are making decisions hour by hour, not even day by day.”
Governments across the region are watching whether Mr Assad can crush the uprising or whether divisions emerge within the regime. Many, however, fear a bloody confrontation between the minority Alawite sect, the offshoot of Shia Islam that dominates the Damascus regime, and the Sunni majority.
“Syria is not Libya: there’s a minority in the leadership and that has implications. Syria is also close to Israel [and officially in a state of war with the Jewish state], and that too has ramifications, so it’s not an easy situation,” says an Arab diplomat.
The Arab League, still made up of mostly authoritarian states, has had a mixed reaction to the revolts sweeping the region.
The Gulf Co-operation Council, the six-nation group of Gulf Arab states that now dominates the League and endorsed the no-fly zone over Libya, led a radically different approach towards Bahrain, intervening on the side of the Sunni royal family to help crush a Shia uprising.
In Yemen, meanwhile, the GCC has sought to broker a smooth transition of power from Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, to more democratic institutions.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both part of the GCC, have allowed their powerful broadcast media free rein to highlight the protests in Syria, unlike the more muted coverage assumed to have been imposed over Bahrain.
But Riyadh and Doha were among four Arab states that were absent for the vote condemning Syria last week at the UN Human Rights Council.
Meanwhile Lebanon, the Arab representative on the UN Security Council, was among those that resisted European efforts for a condemnation of Damascus.
By Roula Khalaf in London
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