Publisher: By Roula Khalaf, Middle East Editor
Story date: 29/11/2011
Why exert pressure on Syria, bemoaned Walid Muallem, the foreign minister, in one of his recent meandering interventions. The country's crisis, he confidently predicted, was reaching "the beginning of the end".
Many of Mr Muallem's neighbours would agree with part of his statement: this is the beginning of the end not of the popular revolt now in its ninth month, however, but of the regime itself.
Beyond the toughening rhetoric and the sanctions imposed against Syria by the Arab League at the weekend lies the unspoken assumption in many Arab capitals that the regime of Bashar al-Assad has reached a point of no return.
The objective of the Arab League sanctions announced on Sunday including travel and airline restrictions, asset freezes on officials and a ban on dealing with the central bank is to dry up the regime's access to financing.
Most important, however, is the political message sent to insiders and some of the regime's remaining pillars of support, including the merchant classes that have helped keep the main cities of Damascus and Aleppo on the sidelines of the uprising, that it is time to switch sides.
"We've moved to political shock tactics to try and collapse the regime," says Salman Shaikh, analyst at the Brookings Doha Center. "It's an attempt to send clear signals to insiders in the regime that the time is up."
Senior Arab officials insist that the Syrian regime still has a way out if it agrees to end the killings of protesters and to a gradual transition outlined in an Arab League peace plan. Yet few hold out hope for a change of course because an end to the crackdown is likely to provoke even wider protests and lead to the regime's demise in any case.
The Arab League is expected to ask the UN Security Council to adopt the sanctions it has issued, although Russia is likely to block such a measure. There are discussions in the region about creating a contact group with Turkey and European states to co-ordinate Syria policy.
"The Arabs are now preparing for regime change," says Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Middle East centre in Beirut. "A coup is one scenario but the spreading of the unrest is another."
Arab officials warn that the conflict could drag on for many months. "The level of violence will go up," says a senior official. "The Arab moves have emboldened the opposition but there will be more brutality by the regime because it is fighting for survival."
For the Arab world as much as for the Syrian opposition, the best outcome of the pressure would be to trigger cracks within the regime, with senior officers from the Alawite minority from which the regime is drawn turning against the Assad family, which controls the key security agencies. Although the regime has proved remarkably resilient, close observers of Syria say concern over loyalty is leading to the movement of heads of battalions around the country every few weeks.
But part of the dilemma for senior members of the regime is a lack of confidence in the opposition, which has yet to impose itself as a credible alternative, and is dominated by the Sunni majority.
"The Syrian street so far has also not reassured the Alawites and this is another major deterrent for officers to defect," says a Damascus-based analyst, who asks to remain anonymous.
An International Crisis Group report argues that one of Mr Assad's achievements has been to link the fate of the Alawite community to its own by inflaming sectarian sentiment in mixed cities like Homs, where violence has escalated in recent weeks.
The regime distributed weapons and bags of sand to communities long before any threat to them was apparent, leading more Syrians to blame the community for their predicament and provoking "a state of panic" among the Alawites, says the report.
As long as the regime remains united, it will face a rising torrent of international and regional pressure and the conflict will head towards more militarisation and a greater risk of some form of outside intervention.
The Free Syrian Army, a Turkish-based group of defectors, has raised its profile in recent weeks with attacks on regime targets and Colonel Riad al-Asaad, its leader, has called for the establishment of a buffer zone on the border with Turkey.
Ankara has shown no appetite for such intervention but the option of buffer zones, whether on the border with Turkey or Jordan, has already been raised among Arab states.
France, meanwhile, is discussing with European partners the prospect of establishing humanitarian corridors, acknowledging that this would involve armed escorts.
Within the region and beyond, the risk of some form of international intervention appears to be nearing. As Mr Sheikh argues, despite Russia's blocking of UN action, Syria is emerging as a "slow motion version" of Libya, with the various elements of potential intervention gradually coming into place, one step at a time.
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