Critical mass: Assad losing his iron grip after eight months of Syria protests

Today's Arab League vote to suspend Syria's membership – coupled with military assaults by defected soldiers – signal that President Assad may now be facing a critical mass of opposition.

Muzaffar Salman/AP
Pro-Syrian regime protesters, shout pro-Syrian President Bashar al-Assad slogans as they gather outside the Syrian foreign ministry where Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem held a press conference, in Damascus, Syria, on Monday.

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As Syrian protests enter their ninth month, President Bashar al-Assad appears to be losing the iron grip he has held over both the opposition and his own allies.

His former regional partners are poised to abandon him with an Arab League vote today and emboldened Army defectors have gone on the offensive against his soldiers and security forces, with violence edging into previous Assad strongholds – including the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The Arab League will meet in Morocco today to formalize its weekend decision to suspend Syria's membership in the bloc if Mr. Assad did not immediately bring an end to violence and release prisoners, as he had agreed to do earlier this month. Instead, violence has escalated. As many as 71 Syrians, nearly half of which were soldiers, were reportedly killed yesterday according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Although Assad released 1,180 prisoners on Tuesday, according to The Washington Post, it was not enough in the eyes of his allies. Turkey announced new economic actions against Syria and the Gulf countries rejected Assad's request for an emergency meeting.

Meanwhile, in the country, the Free Syrian Army, which is made up of Syrian Army defectors, announced that it had launched a slew of offensives on official Army positions. One of their attacks targeted a Syrian intelligence facility in a Damascus suburb – notable because attacks near the capital have been few, the Associated Press reports. On Monday, Army defectors killed 34 soldiers and security forces.

The BBC reports that the Free Syrian Army commander, Riad Assad, has returned from several months away in Turkey and is now leading the opposition's military operations in Syria. His return and the recent attacks indicate a "determined assault on the military," according to the BBC.

Meanwhile, former ally Turkey, now one of the region's leading critics of Assad's regime, has abandoned plans to explore for oil in Syria – a huge potential source of revenue for Syria – and threatened to limit its supply of electricity to its neighbor, according to The New York Times.

On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Assad, "Those who fire on their own people will go down in history as leaders who feed on blood," he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "You are on the same path."

The Christian Science Monitor reported Tuesday that the emergence of a regional consensus against Syria "paves the way" for further international pressure on Assad, namely more sanctions, which Syrian trading partners Russia and China have steadily opposed until now.

Much like the Arab League support for a Libyan no-fly zone made international action politically possible, Saturday’s [decision] by the Arab League to suspend Syria's membership in the bloc makes international action more likely.

The Arab League move “puts a little bit more pressure on the Russians and Chinese,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation. “They are more out of step with the region than before. They can't now claim that there is no regional consensus.”

Since the Arab League decision on Saturday, Russia has sent representatives to meet with the Arab League and with representatives of the Syrian National Council, which represents Syria's opposition, according to The New York Times.

The opposition group said it didn't gain Russian support for anything more than a dialogue with Assad, but even securing a meeting with one of Assad's only remaining allies is still significant. During the same meetings, the Arab League asked the opposition council to begin crafting plans for a transition of power.

King Abdullah of Jordan on Monday became the first Arab leader to call on Assad to resign.

“I believe, if I were in his shoes, I would step down,” King Abdullah told the BBC. “If Bashar has the interest of his country, he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life.”

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