Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1133, 31 Jan - 6 Feb 2013

Ahram Weekly

No one left to talk to

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has not been able to find a single representative of the opposition with whom to engage in dialogue, despite the country’s many different groups and forces, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has not been able to find a single representative of the country’s opposition to engage in dialogue with, in order to end what he is still describing as a battle “between the nation and its enemies” and not between the regime and its opponents in an ongoing uprising against injustice.

In his recent speech Al-Assad said that “they call it a revolution, but it has nothing to do with revolution. A true revolution is undertaken by the people, not by people imported from abroad. Who is the mastermind of this so-called revolution? Who should we talk to — fanatics or with the puppets of the West?”

The opposition has responded by pointing out that it is the Al-Assad regime that is the reason behind the revolution, not some foreign mastermind. The Tunisian revolution, which later sparked the Arab Spring, was triggered by the action of a fruit vendor, it has said, while the Libyan revolution also did not have a single leader.

Those Egyptians who poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to overthrow the regime of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak came from across the social spectrum, the opposition has pointed out. 

There are many oppositional intellectuals in Syria whose writings have long been censored by the regime. Their single common denominator is that they have all spent long years in jail. They are not the agents of foreign powers or unruly elements seeking to damage national security.

Before the uprising began in Syria two years ago, there were no partners to the Syrian regime, which ruled alone as “Al-Assad’s Syria”, as its supporters proudly boasted.

The regime suppressed any independent political views, and defectors such as former vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam and former prime minister Riad Hijab have said that they were never able to question a regime of which they were supposed to be the pillars.

The question of whom Al-Assad should now be talking to is wider than that, however. In his speech, Al-Assad ignored the existence of a broad spectrum of nationalist forces, political parties, political blocs and civil society movements in the country.

The Syrian opposition has a wide variety of different outlooks, affiliations and ideologies. Some of these existed before the present regime came to power, while others are the offspring of the uprising.

When former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, the current president’s father, came to power in 1970 as a result of a military coup, he transformed the country into a totalitarian state that would not countenance any opposing opinions.

The regime hunted down the opposition, suppressed their voices, and imprisoned their leaders. Since then, the existence of the opposition political forces has been a miserable one, with most having fewer than 100 members because of decades of persecution.

However, the uprising has changed the situation, and today there has been an unprecedented growth in revolutionary political blocs and forces.

At first, many were quasi-clandestine, notably the National Democratic Bloc (NDB), established in 1979 and including five leftist and nationalist parties. The Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change was established in 2005 and includes the parties of the NDB, as well as the Committees for Reviving Civil Society, the Muslim Brotherhood, other Kurdish and left-leaning parties, and the Marxist Left Bloc, which includes several smaller leftist parties.

In autumn 2011, the National Coordination Committee (NCC) was formed, composed of 15 Arab and Kurdish parties, as well as a number of independent figures. The NCC became known as the domestic opposition, though in fact it was intended as a temporary grouping dedicated to overthrowing the regime.

The NCC has issued an eight-point plan for a political solution in Syria, including a halt to the fighting, the withdrawal of the army and security agencies, the release of prisoners, the end of the media campaign against the demonstrators, the suspension of the emergency law, and the prosecution of those responsible for the killings of the demonstrators.

 Other demands include allowing the Arab and foreign media into the country, guarantees of the right to demonstrate and the launching of a political transition that will guarantee the peaceful rotation of power.

The NCC has upheld the “three no’s” of no to foreign intervention, no to violence, and no to sectarianism.

Yet, this agenda has not met the wishes of all protesters, some of whom have wanted to see no-fly zones established in Syria, the international protection of civilians, the creation of safe zones and even foreign military intervention.

There have also been initiatives by Syrians living abroad to create opposition bodies. One month after the NCC was born, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) was formed, becoming known as the opposition abroad.

This was a coalition of older political forces and newer ones that had become active as a result of the uprising. The most effective force on the council is the Muslim Brotherhood, but it also includes the Damascus Declaration and leftist and nationalist parties.

This coalition was recognised by many countries as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The council has suffered various internal disputes, between the generations and between those having varying conceptions of Syria’s future. Some figures became more influential than others because of their ability to bring in funds.

It remains an important opposition bloc, and it has put forward greater demands than the NCC. The council has not always rejected foreign military intervention, and it has demanded the establishment of buffer zones and support for arming the protesters. As a result, it has gained support in Syria itself.

The support of popular movements for the opposition has been inspired by the Libyan experience, in the hope that this will lead to the overthrow of the regime. However, the SNC, too, has sometimes been caught between politicking and representing the street and the demonstrators.

Its performance faltered, and the NCC appeared to be more cohesive, perhaps because its members had older ties and relatively greater experience of political action.

The SNC and the NCC have entered into unnecessary political battles, and neither has been willing to merge with the other. Many initiatives have failed to unite their programmes, leaving each to promote its own strategy.

In November last year, the opposition agreed to form the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSR), which included long-standing political forces and newer revolutionary groups.

It also included a large number of politicians and activists, and its goal was the same as its predecessors: overthrowing the Syrian regime, dissolving the security agencies and prosecuting those involved in the killing.

The NCSR has formed an interim government to lead the transitional period, and this has been recognised by the Arab countries and the international community as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The NCSR is the most important attempt to date to unite the Syrian opposition, but it is unlikely to be the only voice of the country’s opposition groupings, which include many other minority groups.

Alongside the larger opposition blocs, other currents have emerged. Some have agreed to join the larger blocs, while others have preferred to function independently, though all are working to overthrow the regime and refuse to enter into dialogue with it.

Meanwhile, the 11 opposition Kurdish parties also cannot be ignored, since they represent the Syrian Kurds, estimated at ten per cent of the population. There are also active revolutionary forces on the ground that have tens of thousands of members.

As well as the political forces, there are also opposition military forces, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the military councils, independent brigades and battalions that may be Islamist, secularist or jihadist.

There are also Christian, Alawite and Druze brigades. Altogether, these are estimated to have more than 100,000 fighters, all of whom believe in overthrowing the regime by force.

According to Al-Assad, none of these parties, blocs and currents are worthy of dialogue, implying that he is only willing to talk to organisations relating to the ruling Syrian Baath Party.

Such groups will accept change if it is carried out under the auspices of the regime, while keeping the foundations of the regime and its security agencies, army and loyalist militias intact. This is unacceptable to the people of Syria.

The opposition has made mistakes, and some forces have been unable to come up with a clear plan or priorities, but most observers believe that four decades of suppression by the regime have maimed the opposition, which nevertheless represents the majority of Syrian public opinion.

The regime’s refusal to negotiate with the opposition, leaving the crisis to take a military course, will result in a long conflict. As a result, more violence is likely to come, and though this may topple the regime it will leave the country in a critical position and open to more than one future scenario.

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