Why Arab leaders are largely silent on Syria's brutal crackdown

Arab leaders put aside the creed of Arab unity to speak out against Libya's Qaddafi. But they are far more wary of Syria, whose Assad regime is a much more influential player.

By , Correspondent

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    A Lebanese child watches the Syrian army tents near the Syrian border from his home in Wady Khaled, northern Lebanon, August 1.
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The Syrian regime's crackdown on the rebellious city of Hama has triggered an international outcry, with ambassadors recalled from Damascus and the United Nations Security Council convening to discuss the worsening violence.

But there has been little response from Arab states to the four-month crisis in Syria, which has left some 1,500 people dead and some 10,000 detained.

While Arab leaders put aside their adherence to the traditional creed of Arab unity and their distaste for public squabbles to support international action against Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, they are far more wary of Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime sits in the heart of the Middle East and exerts influence – sometimes malign – over several neighboring countries.

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Since becoming president in 2000, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s relations with many of his fellow Arab leaders have been strained, mainly because of Damascus’s deepening relationship with Tehran over the past decade. Syria is a key member in an anti-Israel alliance spanning the Middle East, which is led by Iran and includes powerful groups such as Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt, under former President Hosni Mubarak, had deep misgivings about Syria’s close relationship with Iran. The Saudis sought to wean Assad away from Tehran through an ultimately unsuccessful mix of persuasion and isolation.

If Mr. Assad were to appear on TV today and announce an immediate split with Iran, “he would get all the help he needs from the Arab regimes,” says Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with Lebanon’s As Safir newspaper. But Assad has shown no inclination to give up that alliance.

The succession of regime-changing rebellions that has rippled through the Arab world since January, however, is of far greater concern to Arab leaders still clinging to power than their frustration with Assad's regime. Silent during the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, they are likely to remain silent even as an unprecedented Syrian movement challenges the 40-year rule of Assad and his father.

“Anyone who is going for a revolution should forget about any Arab support coming from any Arab country,” says Mr. Noureddine. “Were the Arab regimes happy with the removal of Ben Ali from Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt? Not at all. None of them.”

Why Libya was an exception

Libya was the one exception. The 22-member Arab League gave its approval to Western military intervention in Libya because Qaddafi has earned a raft of enemies in the Arab world during his four decades in power and long ago lost the sympathy of his peers.

Qatar, which has something of a maverick reputation in the Arab world, has distanced itself from Syria, even though the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was a personal friend of Assad. The Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite news network has been a staunch critic of the Syrian regime’s handling of the protestors. Other Arab media outlets also have been deeply critical, particularly those owned or supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

In Lebanon, Syria’s tiny and vulnerable neighbor, some politicians have become increasingly outspoken in criticizing developments in Syria. Over the weekend, Saad Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who has been living abroad lately (reportedly due to death threats), condemned the “slaughter” in Hama, saying “we in Lebanon cannot under any circumstances remain silent regarding these bloody developments.”

Syrian activists decry 'moral cowardice' of international leaders

But, analysts say, despite the occasional critical voice, the leaders of the uprising in Syria should expect no assistance from Arab leaders. It also looks unlikely that they will get tangible help from Western countries.

While leaders in the United States and Europe have slammed the Assad regime for the ruthless repression of opposition protestors, a military intervention similar to that of Libya has been ruled out.

Syrian opposition activists have decried the lack of support from the international community and some accept that they are on their own.

“The important thing is to remain committed to the peaceful nature of the movement, despite ongoing provocation by the regime and the moral cowardice of the international leaders,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a leading Syrian activist based in Washington. “Admittedly, this will get more difficult from now onward.”

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