The first batch of 60 Arab League monitors arriving in Syria on Thursday, out of a total of 150, are to act as a barrier that will prevent the Syrian crisis from reaching the United Nations. Their mission is not to prevent the killing of civilians or implement the league's demands for Syrian President Bashar Assad. They are coming to observe the killing, listen to the claims of civilians and the regime, and report to the league.
They are to stay for one month, with an option to extend, but in the agreement signed with Syria that granted access to the monitors, the Assad regime severely restricts the monitors' activities. It is very doubtful whether the monitors will be able to do their job faithfully, not to mention reaching the killing fields where the Syrian army is at work and which have already been declared out-of-bounds.
The monitors will also find it difficult to interview political prisoners. The army has ordered them moved from civilian prisons to military prisons, where the monitors will not be allowed to set foot.
The agreement, which came into being following heavy Russian pressure and Iranian approval, allows Assad to continue crushing the ever-growing protest, which has now spread to Syria's two biggest cities, Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus.
Right after the agreement was signed, events took a dramatic turn. The Syrian army changed its tactics, resulting in the deaths of more than 250 people in three days.
If the regime believed previously that killing a few dozen civilians every day - using armed thugs - would calm the protest, now the army is using new methods. At the stormy Aleppo University campus, for example, the army used tear gas for the first time. In other cities, the army is now waging all-out war, without consideration for the numbers of casualties that results.
The army also held a live-fire combined ground and air training maneuver to show that its "ordinary" capabilities have not been compromised, to deter an attack on the country.
Syria has a standing army of 220,000, with another 280,000 reservists. Thus, the approximately 15,000 deserters and the Syrian Free Army, under the leadership of Col. Riad Assad, is no real challenge to the Syrian military. Moreover, the deserters have neither tanks nor helicopters that would allow them to fight a regular battle against the army.
The deserters are using guerilla tactics that cause the army heavy losses but also give the army a pretext to use greater force against civilians. Major disagreements have erupted between the Syrian Free Army and the civil opposition, which continues to call for nonviolent protest.
But lacking significant international action other than sanctions, the opposition is now leaning toward moving the crisis to the international arena and demanding that forces be sent to protect civilians.
That demand is now caged between the West's lack of desire to take military action and the monitors' work, which gives the West time to make a decision as well. The question is, therefore, what is the critical mass of casualties that will shake up the West and lead Russia to sign up for action against Syria.
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