BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s president faces a growing challenge to his iron rule from home and abroad, with renegade troops launching their most daring attack yet on the military and world leaders looking at possibilities for a regime without Bashar Assad.
Also on Wednesday, France recalled its ambassador to Damascus in the wake of recent attacks against diplomatic missions and increasing violence stemming from the 8-month-old uprising. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned that “the vise is tightening” around Assad, and a government spokeswoman said Paris is working with the Syrian opposition to find an alternative to the regime.
The move comes as the 22-member Arab League formally suspended Damascus over the crackdown, which the U.N. estimates has killed more than 3,500 people, and threatened economic sanctions if the regime continues to violate an Arab-brokered peace plan.
The foreign ministers, meeting Wednesday in Rabat, Morocco, also gave the Syrian government three days to respond to an Arab peace plan that involves sending an Arab League delegation to monitor compliance.
“Economic sanctions are certainly possible if the Syrian government does not respond,” said Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim.
Gamal Abdel Gawad, an Arab affairs expert in Cairo, said the League’s vote suggests Arab leaders are scrambling to influence the type of regime Syria sees in the future.
“Regime change is unavoidable,” he told The Associated Press.
The growing calls for Assad’s ouster are a severe blow to a family dynasty that has ruled Syria for four decades — and any change to the leadership could transform some of the most enduring alliances in the Middle East and beyond.
Syria’s tie to Iran is among the most important relationships in the Middle East, providing the Iranians with a foothold on Israel’s border and a critical conduit to Tehran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Hamas in Gaza.
Syrian allies in Russia and China also worry that the downfall of Assad would seriously hamper their interests in the Middle East.
On the other side of the equation, Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the Mideast have long tried to break the Syria-Iran alliance in a campaign to roll back Tehran’s influence in the region. Assad’s fall could usher in a regime more bound to Sunni power.
Iran has encouraged Assad to talk to the opposition and even suggested he cannot rely only on force and intimidation — the same formula used in 2009 by Iran against protesters after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But generally, Tehran has mirrored the Damascus line about the unrest, saying foreign powers are stirring up trouble as part of a conspiracy to destabilize Syria.
Javad Larijani, the head of Iran’s Human Rights Council, on Wednesday accused the West of incitement.
“Our position is that all the hands should be cut off from this kind of interference. It is up to the people of Syria to decide,” Larijani told a press conference Wednesday at U.N. headquarters in New York.
But as more countries shift away from Damascus, Assad’s power could wobble.
Assad, a 46-year-old eye doctor who inherited power 11 years ago, already is facing the most profound isolation of his family’s four-decade rule.
World leaders who once hoped Assad could transform his father’s stagnant dictatorship into a modern state are abandoning him in rapid succession.
French government spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse said Wednesday that Paris is working with the Syrian opposition “to try to develop a political alternative” to Assad’s government.
Britain’s Foreign Office said its ambassador will remain in Syria despite France’s decision to recall its envoy, although it said the matter is under “regular review.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, who was withdrawn over security concerns, still planned to return to Syria next week.
“Let’s be very clear that it is the brutal tactics of Assad and his regime in dealing with what began as a nonviolent movement that is now taking Syria down a very dangerous path,” Toner said. “We have said all along the brutal crackdown by the Syrian government would engender this kind of reaction.”
In neighboring Jordan, King Abdullah II said this week that Assad should step down for the good of his country — the first Arab leader to publicly make such a call. Jordan’s powerful Islamic opposition then urged Amman to recognize the broad-based Syrian National Council in yet another rebuke to Assad.
Inside Syria, thousands of people who even a year ago would have been too terrified to speak out against the ruling elite are calling for nothing less than Assad’s downfall. It is a stunning transformation for a leader who insisted in January that his country was immune to the Arab Spring uprisings because he is in tune with his people’s needs.
In a series of interviews, Israeli officials told the AP they expect Assad to fall within months, if not weeks. Israel and Syria are bitter enemies but have not fought each other for nearly 30 years.
While they remain concerned that Assad’s downfall could destabilize the area, they are also less convinced that an Islamic regime hostile to Israel will take power in Damascus after he leaves.
One Israeli official who deals with the question of Syria said Israel had drawn up several scenarios, including a survival of a military regime dominated by the minority Alawite sect even if Assad is forced to step down. Assad and the ruling elite belong to the sect, although Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni.
The officials, including both government and military figures, all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive security and diplomatic assessments.
Alawite dominance in Syria has bred resentment, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity. But he now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed relatives, to crush the resistance.
Assad and his father before him stacked key military posts with Alawites to meld the fates of the army and the regime — a tactic aimed at compelling the army to fight to the death to protect the family dynasty.
In many ways, however, the unrest is spinning out of Assad’s control.
Attacks on Syrian forces by defecting troops have been growing, highlighting the potential for a larger armed conflict in a country of 22 million with a volatile religious and ethnic mixture.
Although activists say the anti-government protesters have remained largely peaceful, an armed insurgency has developed recently, targeting Assad’s military.
On Wednesday, Syrian army defectors attacked military and intelligence bases near the capital of Damascus and an army checkpoint in Hama province.
The deadliest attack was in Hama, where army defectors killed at least eight soldiers and security forces in the checkpoint assault in the village of Kfar Zeita, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
But the most brazen attacks were just outside Damascus. Attacks by army defectors have been rare near Assad’s seat of power, so Wednesday marked a significant shift.
The Free Syrian Army — a group of military defectors — said in a statement that its main pre-dawn attack targeted a compound run by air force intelligence in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. Defectors also hit checkpoints in the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Qaboun and Arabeen and Saqba.
Despite the army defections, the military has remained loyal to Assad to a large degree.
Most of the defectors appear to be lower-level Sunni conscripts, not officers. But observers say the tide could change if the military continues to be called upon to shoot unarmed protesters.
Wednesday’s attacks could not be independently confirmed, and the Free Syrian Army released no details about the fighting or possible casualties.
The Syrian government has largely sealed off the country, barring most foreign journalists and preventing independent reporting. Details gathered by activist groups and witnesses, along with amateur video, have become key channels of information.
Violence has continued unabated in Syria for months, even after Damascus agreed Nov. 2 to an Arab-brokered peace deal that called for the regime to halt violence against protesters, pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners, and allow access for journalists and rights groups.
On Saturday, the Arab League voted to suspend Damascus over its failure to stop the bloodshed. The group officially enforced that decision Wednesday in Rabat, Morocco.
“The Syrian government has to sign the protocol that was sent by the Arab League and end all the violence against the demonstrators and free political detainees and all that has to happen in three days,” said bin Jassim, the Qatari foreign minister.
“At that point we will send a mission of observers,” he said.
The suspension has enraged Syria, which considers itself a bastion of Arab nationalism. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem boycotted the meeting.
Damascus fears the United States and its allies might use the rare Arab consensus to press for tougher sanctions at the United Nations. Veto-wielding Russia and China have so far opposed efforts at the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria — a stance that could become harder to maintain in the face of the Arab position.