FOR DECADES, foreign-policy realists have taken it for granted that governments in Arab nations play by “Hama rules.’’ The term was coined by New York Times writer Thomas Friedman in 1982 after Syrian President Hafez al-Assad put down a rebellion by razing the city of Hama, slaughtering an estimated 20,000 Syrians in the process. Arab tyrants, it was understood, would maintain their grip on power by any means necessary. And if those means included brutal violence - well, no one looked to the Arab League to object.
So the Cairo-based regional bloc’s decision Saturday to suspend Syria’s membership unless Bashar al-Assad - son of the “Hama Rules’’ dictator - halts his current bloody crackdown against Syrian protesters is a dramatic and hopeful development. The move not only puts more pressure on Syria, but also raises the expectations for all member nations.
Assad agreed on Nov. 2 to an Arab League plan calling for Syria to end its murderous attacks on demonstrators, pull its tanks from urban areas, free the thousands of dissidents jailed since the protests began in March, and allow journalists and human-rights groups to enter the country. But the regime fulfilled none of those requirements. The number of protesters murdered by Assad’s troops has now passed 3,500. In response, 18 of the league’s 22 members voted to punish Syria with suspension; Iraq abstained and only Yemen (where President Ali Abdullah Saleh also faces a determined uprising), Syria, and Syria-dominated Lebanon voted no.
The league also urged its members to recall their ambassadors in Damascus, and even raised the threat of economic sanctions. More remarkable still, it announced that it will convene a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders, a possible first step to recognizing the regime’s opponents as the legitimate representative of Syria’s people.
Needless to say, the Arab League has hardly turned into a confederation of Jeffersonian democracies. Among the governments voting to suspend Syria, after all, were the repressive autocracies of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Sudan. Yet the group’s willingness to close ranks against Syria - on top of its decision to suspend Moammar Khadafy’s regime in Libya earlier this year - suggests that in the wake of the Arab Spring, the old “Hama rules’’ no longer apply. Even in the Middle East, the league is saying, despots can no longer mow down their own people with impunity.
All the more reason, then, for the Arab League to keep turning up the heat. An end to Assad’s rule would mark a major step forward for Syria, but if his downfall comes about through coordinated pressure by governments across the Arab world, the entire Middle East will be changed for the better.