It was too late to make the Australian papers, but the big news overnight from the Middle East was an announcement from the Arab League that the Syrian government has agreed to the League’s peace plan for Syria: an end to violence, withdrawal of troops from cities, release of prisoners and negotiations with the opposition.

According to Al Jazeera, the League secretary-general described this as a “paradigm shift” in the Syrian situation. But there was also a distinct note of scepticism in the announcement by the Qatari prime minister that “we are happy to have reached this agreement and we will be even happier when it is implemented immediately”.

Reaction from the US was that negotiations were no substitute for the immediate departure of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad — a goal that Washington took a considerable time to embrace but is now committed to. “Our position remains that President Assad has lost his legitimacy to rule and should step down.”

The Syrian uprising has dragged on for nearly eight months with a cumulative death toll of several thousand. But although often seeming on the verge of tipping over into full-scale massacre or civil war it has not done so, and this morning’s breakthrough offers some hope that the worst might be over.

This is the big difference between Syria and Libya. Assad has lacked the manic ruthlessness that Colonel Gaddafi displayed; no one really doubted that had Gaddafi gained the upper hand he would have engaged in exactly the bloodbath that he promised (just as Assad’s father did in 1982). Whatever else might have been the pros and cons of Western intervention, the need to protect civilians was all too clear.

Syria is less clear. There, Assad has at least made the effort to sound like a reformer and peace maker, deploring the violence while conspicuously failing to stop it. But as the months go by and casualties continue to mount, it becomes harder and harder to imagine a resolution that doesn’t involve a complete change of regime. The endgame in Libya will have given Syria’s opposition more confidence in demanding just that.

For the Arab League, there are no good options here. With the traditional regional leader, Egypt, preoccupied with its own messy but hopeful transition to democracy, Saudi Arabia and the gulf states have been making most of the running in putting pressure on Assad. Saudi king Abdullah feels the need (as I put it in August) “to cut loose those who, in his eyes, are giving autocracy a bad name”.

But this is playing with fire. Every tyrant who is deposed or forced into humiliating concessions just adds to the pressure on those who are left. If, say, this time next year, the Arab League consists of a dozen or more democracies, Saudi Arabia’s position as the last major autocracy will be precarious indeed.

So what the Saudis want is a way for the insurgency to go away quickly but without creating further momentum for democratisation. That’s what the peace plan is supposed to achieve (as well as, of course, painting the Saudis and their allies as the good guys). It’s difficult, however, to see how any agreement could be reached that doesn’t amount to a face-saving way for Assad to leave power — just the sort of deal that Yemen’s president Saleh keeps accepting and then backing away from.

Watching Gaddafi’s fate might encourage Assad to cut and run while he still can. But if he too is just playing for time, hoping to wait out his opponents and reserving the option of a bloodier crackdown to come, then a Libyan-style foreign intervention may yet become an option.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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