An Arab leader has got to be pretty bad when the Arab League suspends him for repression and brutality. That's what happened this weekend to Syrian President Bashar Assad when he was given four days to halt his attacks on unarmed civilians. Of particularly interest are the four of the League's 22 members who did NOT vote for suspension.
Syria, naturally, was opposed, calling the vote "illegal" and accusing the League of "serving a western and American agenda." Lebanon, which is dominated by Hizbullah, Assad's proxy which he has heavily armed to control Lebanon and attack Israel, voted no, as did Yemen, which is conducting its own brutal crackdown of dissenters and could be next.
Surprisingly, America's quasi-democratic creation, Iraq, abstained. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has been a long-time supporter of Assad and, a Shi'ite, has at times had closer relations to Tehran than to Washington.
Assad has not halted the attacks on civilian demonstrators, as the League demanded, but called instead for an emergency meeting, which was interpreted as an effort to buy time. In what the Associated Press called "a thinly veiled warning," his government said he wanted to meet "because the fallout from the Syrian crisis could harm regional security."
That could be interpreted as a threat of a diversionary attack on Israel, possibly by his Hizbullah proxies, to relieve pressure from his fellow Arabs; it's a tactic Saddam Hussein tried by firing Scuds at Israel but it failed. Another possibility is a threat of fomenting chaos in other Arab states, possibly with the help of his Hizbullah and Iranian friends.
Syria accused the League of "serving a western and American agenda," and Hizbullah leaders have threatened that if there is any foreign intervention in Syria it would retaliate against Israel and the West.
In the wake of the Arab League vote, armed gangs, presumably dispatched by the regime, attacked several foreign embassies in Damascus.
President Barack Obama applauded the Arab League decision. " These significant steps expose the increasing diplomatic isolation of a regime that has systematically violated human rights and repressed peaceful protests," he said.
Obama pledged to "support the Syrian people" as they seek a "transition to democracy." That democracy talk could also been seen as a hint to other Arab leaders to take seriously the popular demand for change sweeping the region lest it consume them as well.
One thing Assad has had going in his favor has been growing dissent in the ranks of the opposition. In an effort to change that, the League invited opposition leaders to meet in Cairo this week to work out a unified approach to dealing with Assad.
Syria, unlike Libya, is not an outlier in Arab politics; it calls itself "the beating heart of Arabism" and has long been a central figure in Arab politics and Egypt's rival for leadership. Being declared a virtual pariah is a stinging rebuke for Assad, but he stays in power because he still commands the loyalty of his army and security forces.
There have been a few defections but they've largely come from the lower ranks –thanks to decades of stacking military and security leadership with regime loyalists, primarily coming from the Assad family's Alawite sect.
Western sanctions, particularly the European embargo on Syria oil, are having serious impact on the country's economy, which the New York Times called "Assad's greatest vulnerability."
The League hinted at economic and political sanctions of its own if Assad continued to defy an agreement he'd made earlier with the League to end his brutal crackdown on civilian opposition, release prisoners and call off his security forces.
Human rights groups estimate the civilian death toll at more than 3,500, but there is no independent confirmation since foreign journalists and other international observers have been prevented from entering.