November 28, 2011

Arab League sanctions aren't so altruistic

Let's be honest for a moment about the Arab League's unprecedented sanctions against Syria. Despite the legitimate humanitarian impulses of some Arab rulers, they all realize that violent crackdowns are failing to stem the populist, democratic trend across the Middle East. The defiance of ordinary Syrians in the face of brutal repression is helping to inspire citizens in other Arab states to stand up for their own rights.

For the first time ever, mass killings by Arab regimes are proving bad for business -- for the business of autocracy, that is.

The members of the Arab League have tolerated far worse in the past -- by Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Syria's own Hafez Assad (father of the current despot), to name just two.

What has changed:

1. Pan-Arab Nationalism is no longer enough to justify violent police states. [See under: Arab Spring]

2. The Syria of  Bashar Assad is not the regional power it was under his father 30-40 years ago, so his Arab counterparts have less to fear from Assad's threats than from the threat of contagion.

3. Arab rulers see that violent crackdowns are failing to put down domestic forces of change, even while they fuel popular solidarity and resistance elsewhere.

As Egypt's military brass realized with Hosni Mubarak, sometimes only a Plan B (i.e., sacrificing one leader) can save the collective. In Syria's case, the collective is most of the remaining Arab monarchies and dictatorships. Even in Egypt, where the democratic revolution was supposed to have succeeded, the Supreme Council must have felt relief that Syria sanctions were announced just as millions of Egyptians were heading to the polls to test the new post-Mubarak freedoms (amid no shortage of military force in their own streets).

In the end, we'd like to think democracy will win out across the Middle East, with a minimal amount of bloodshed -- and that, if some despots hope to forestall popular rule by turning on one of their own -- Assad -- then they are mistaken. And it may all turn out for the best. But we should not be under any illusions about the motivations.

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