Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was blunt when he declared: “Either in Yemen, Syria or any other country, people have some legitimate demands and governments should answer them as soon as possible.” Gone was the facile epithet of ‘foreign conspiracies’ for even Iran knew there were none. Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/Gulf News

The Syrian Baath party may yet surprise everyone by embarking on genuine reforms that will end single-party rule and adopt parliamentary democracy, which will allow citizens to enjoy basic freedoms they surely deserve.

Paradoxically, few seem to believe that Damascus can accomplish such an outcome, with Tehran the latest government signalling its displeasure. In what was a clear warning, Iran recently told President Bashar Al Assad to heed the "legitimate demands" of civilians protesting against his family's 40-year rule, which stunned everyone.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was blunt when he declared: "Either in Yemen, Syria or any other country, people have some legitimate demands and governments should answer them as soon as possible." Gone was the facile epithet of ‘foreign conspiracies' for even Iran knew there were none.

At a time when Iranian ambitions in the Arab world were threatened by the forthcoming regime change in Syria, Tehran reminded Damascus that it was an Arab country, and while it stood to lose significant influence with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, it nevertheless calculated that the Al Assad government could no longer be rescued.

Iran was not the only country that assessed which direction the wind was blowing. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors a few weeks ago and publicly rejected the ruthless crackdown on protesters. Even the moribund Arab League, whose various declarations embarrassed millions, added its voice to the chorus.

Arab League secretary-general Nabeel Al Arabi first visited Syria in mid-July to help end the crisis, when he stated: "The Arab League rejected any interference in the internal affairs of the Arab countries, and no one was entitled to divest any Arab leader of his legitimacy because that was up to the people to decide."

A few days ago, League foreign ministers issued a strong declaration, which Damascus considered null and void.

According to press reports, Syria was livid that the proclamation demanded an end to the killings and, even worse, that it was made public, "despite the meeting having closed with an agreement that no statement would be published." In the event, the League wished to see an "end to the spilling of blood and [for Syria] to follow the way of reason before it was too late."

Importantly, the foreign ministers further called on authorities to respect "the right of the Syrian people to live in security and of their legitimate aspirations for political and social reforms." Ironically, Al Arabi waited for a Syrian authorisation to return to Damascus, which was truly awkward.

For its part, Turkey ran out of patience too, apparently suspending all forms of dialogue with its neighbour. A little over two weeks ago, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, confronted Al Assad. On August 10, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expected Al Assad to usher in changes "in the next 10 to 15 days," which never materialised. While Ankara worked hard to preserve its ‘diplomatic intervention' card, which was why it seldom called on Al Assad to leave, President Abdullah Gul finally conceded that Turkish authorities "reached a point where anything would be too little too late".

"Today in the world," he stressed a few days ago, "there is no place for authoritarian administrations, one-party rule, closed regimes," warning that such governments could be "replaced by force" if necessary.

In the aftermath of dramatic changes in Libya, which certainly benefited from Nato interventions but succeeded because of the unity displayed by members of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the ball was in the proverbial Syrian opposition court.

For six months, members of the resistance bickered among themselves but finally settled on the erudite and sophisticated Burhan Ghalioun, a Syrian-French political scientist, as the chairman of the Syrian NTC.

Ghalioun, who heads the Sorbonne University Centre for Contemporary Oriental Studies in Paris, must now tame 94 opposition principals. It must be emphasised that the choice heralded putative French support, which will need to be significantly altered, because President Nicolas Sarkozy's preferred policies accomplished little.

Ghalioun was capable and talented enough to coordinate the required international pressure on the Al Assad regime, as well as sufficiently intelligent not to pursue power for its own sake. Still, his enormous task was to insist on a unified position, which was easier said than done.

Syria will survive, but probably without the Baath party and that was precisely what Iran, Turkey, and the vast majority of Arab countries insinuated. For everyone seemed to finally accept the notion that the protests could not cease, that they might escalate, and that foreign intervention — probably a Nato approved Turkish version — could not be excluded. In fact, where Damascus erred for over six months was in its relentless assaults on civilians using unacceptable brutality, which proved futile, and that essentially meant demonstrations galore precisely to avoid another 40-50 years of Baath authoritarianism.

Although Syria may not follow the Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni or Libyan models, Ghalioun will now guide the inevitable transitional transformation that the people of Syria wish. In addition to his contacts in the West, Ghalioun ought to consider quick trips to Ankara and Moscow, but especially to Tehran, where he could thank Iranian officials for stressing Syria's Arab credentials.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.