Last chance for Syrian regime

Cairo, Egypt. Even as it continues to kill protesters, Syria accepted an Arab League plan today that calls on Damascus to end the fighting, and start talking to the Syrian opposition.

The plan requires Syria to implement an immediate ceasefire, withdraw its military forces from all cities; release thousands of opposition detainees and permit Arab media and independent observers to enter the country. If these conditions are met, the plan calls for a dialogue to begin within two weeks, at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, between Syrian officials and Syrian opposition leaders, including those inside the country and the recently formed Syrian National Council of leaders-in-exile.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari works to get Syria on board. (Trudy Rubin / Staff)

Syria initially resisted the Cairo venue, but Arab League officials insisted that a neutral location was required. I asked Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who was in Cairo for Wednesday’s Arab League meeting, whether he thought the Syrians were serious.

 Zebari, who helped persuade the Syrians to sign on, admits that “many believe the Syrians are buying time to relieve the pressures on them.” He says that Syrian leaders “are banking that the opposition will reject the plan,” but external Syrian opposition leaders are not rejecting it outright. Instead they are waiting to see if Syria implements a ceasefire.

The Saudis, and other Arab Gulf countries “don’t have much faith in Syria’s promises,” Zebari said. “This is the last opportunity” for Damascus, he added. “Two weeks from today is the deadline.”

The Arab League took action to stop the Syrian bloodletting as it became clear that the international community was unlikely to do so, especially after Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution harshly critical of Damascus.

Arab leaders are tremendously nervous about an all out Syrian civil war that would pit majority Sunnis against Syria’s Alawite (Shiite) leadership, and reignite sectarian conflicts around the region.  Iraq is especially worried.  Syria is a close ally of Iran, and if its president falls, the Iranians may focus more intently on exerting influence inside Iraq.

If Syria reneges on the Arab League plan, more pressure is likely to be applied by neighboring Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to be incensed by the behavior of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who rebuffed extensive Turkish mediation efforts. Turkish officials believe the Syrian regime can’t be reformed, and Ankara is already permitting defecting Syrian army officers to find shelter across the border in Turkey.

Zebari says that, if Syria rebuffs the Arab league, Turkey is likely to “impose many sanctions”, including restrictions on trade and free movement across the Syrian-Turkish border; both have become essential to the Syrian economy.

Rumors are swirling here about stepped up Saudi financing for Syrian rebels and the possibility that opposition activists could receive military training in Turkey, perhaps leading ultimately to another NATO no-fly zone over parts of Syria. So far NATO has squelched such ideas, nor is there any Western appetite for another Mideast military adventure.

What is clear is that, as Zebari said, this is probably Assad’s last chance to avoid a far bloodier civil war that will eventually do him in.