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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 Nicholas BlanfordCorrespondent / August 2, 2011

A Lebanese child watches the Syrian army tents near the Syrian border from his home in Wady Khaled, northern Lebanon, August 1.

Omar Ibrahim/Reuters


Beirut, Lebanon

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.

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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.

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.


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