Playing for Time: Syria's Regime Dodges and Parries — but Keeps on Killing

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Louai Beshara / AFP / Getty Images

A giant banner depicting embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad is carried by thousands of Syrians in the capital Damascus on Nov. 28, 2011

The regime of Syria's increasingly beleaguered President Bashar Assad has — by his own account — made several missteps in the eight months since pro-democracy protesters first took to the streets of the formidable police state. It has tried to crush what in the early days it might have more easily coerced, fueling increased resentment; it underplayed and misunderstood the nature of popular resentment; and it ignored advice from friends and foes alike that it cannot kill its way out of this crisis. Now, it wants to haggle with the Arab League, proposing amendments to a peace plan it has simultaneously pledged to support and ignore.

The 22-member Arab League, which suspended Syria's membership in early November, has repeatedly extended lapsed deadlines for Damascus to abide by its plan to stem the bloodshed and begin substantive talks with its domestic opponents, in the hope of finding an "Arab solution" to the crisis. The Arab proposal asked Assad to withdraw his much feared security forces from the country's besieged cities, stop the violence, free all political detainees, hold a national dialogue with the Syrian opposition within weeks and allow Arab and international observers into the closed country.

Instead, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem had a few suggestions of his own, conveyed in a letter to Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby dated Dec. 4, according to the state-run news agency SANA. Syria would let in Arab League observers, the letter says, and sign the controversial deal on several conditions, key among them that Arab economic sanctions be cancelled, Syria's suspension from the body be reversed and the deal be sealed in Damascus, not at the league's headquarters in Cairo. The last would allow Assad to crow that at the end of the day the Arab League crawled back to the self-declared "beating heart of pan-Arabism."

The Syrians want the names, nationalities and occupations of the proposed Arab monitors, and reject the notion of security personnel accompanying them to provide force protection, highlighting Syria's skittishness about any foreign boots on the ground, whatever their mandate. The Syrians are also prepared to concede that the mission can have "full freedom of movement and the freedom to make whatever visits or contacts it considers appropriate" with one small caveat, that the "full freedom" is coordinated with the regime.

There are few surprises in Moallem's suggested amendments. Syria views attempts to mediate an end to its crisis as foreign and regional intervention in its domestic affairs. Perhaps borrowing from Assad's playbook, Araby has rejected the key Syrian request to lift sanctions, while simultaneously saying the League was "studying" Damascus's demands.

How long can this nervous diplomatic dance last? The death toll in Syria has surpassed 4,000 (a U.N. estimate Syrian rights activists say is conservative); the once peaceful protests have morphed into an armed insurrection as military defectors go on the offense against loyalists; and the economy — Assad's Achilles' heel — is buckling under the weight of increasing international pressure. Something's got to give. The question is: What?

Critics say Assad's response to the Arab League is yet another of his well-worn ploys to buy time so that he can crush dissent. Russia and China continue to shield the Syrian leader from a damning U.N. Security Council resolution, while Iran, despite offering repeated advice that Assad respond to the aspirations of his people, is still backing its crucial ally in the eastern Mediterranean.

For now, Russia's interests in particular remain aligned with Assad's, but Moscow too is experiencing its own domestic shock following the results of a recent poll that indicated a poorer-than-expected showing for Vladimir Putin's party and the protests that have followed. Might Moscow turn inward, or more likely, considering its military interests in the Mediterranean (currently served through a naval facility at the Syrian port city of Tartus), might they be better preserved if it switched sides in Syria?

France has led calls for a so-called "humanitarian corridor" to provide a safe haven for Syrian civilians and defectors, and effectively establish an opposition outpost akin to Libya's Benghazi within the country's borders. But who is going to police that territory even if it can be carved out by the band of defectors called the Free Syrian Army (FSA)? The Turks have talked tough, but haven't shown any appetite for putting their own boots on Syrian ground, suggesting the Syrians are going to have to do it for themselves. Still so far, the FSA has been unable to win and hold any territory. Despite lofty claims by its leader Riad al-Asaad, whose interviews, access and security are all controlled by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, it's unclear how potent a force it represents, given that in several supposed strongholds like Rastan and Hama the defectors are desperate for weapons. In a video posted to YouTube, one unit of the FSA, reportedly in Homs, called for civilian volunteers, breaking the rebel army's own tenet that only military defectors join its ranks.

NATO, despite its victory in Libya, is beset with other concerns. Europe and the U.S are grappling with serious economic woes, as well as a decade-old Afghan campaign that continues to punish and pummel coalition troops and their Afghan allies. Can it afford to dip into the Syrian crisis, which promises to be as big — if not bigger — a quagmire than post-Saddam Iraq? The two countries share a volatile ethno-sectarian mix, and borders with each other and other equally fragile states. Still, Iraq, unlike Syria, does not border Israel. Syria's steadfast Lebanese ally, Hizballah's leader Hassan Nasrallah, in a rare public appearance on Tuesday reiterated his full support for Damascus, a crucial transit route for weapons and funds from Iran to the only Arab militant organization to ever give Israel a drubbing on the battlefield.

Even as the Arab League flexes its long-atrophied political muscle, it is by no means a unanimous body when it comes to dealing with Damascus. Lebanon, Syria's historical satellite, and Iraq — strongly aligned with Iran — have balked at the punitive measures against Syria. Now, Jordan too seems to be looking for a way out. The Hashemite Kingdom has requested an exclusion from implementing the Arab League sanctions, the local daily the Jordan Times reported, citing possible harm to its economic interests. Jordan wants to halve, rather than halt, flights to Syria, the paper said, and has asked the league to exempt Jordan's trade sector from the sanctions. If the Arab League cannot present a united front against Damascus, what will convince other international players to step into the Syrian quagmire?