Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Courting chaos

Al-Assad has slammed the door in the face of a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis, writes Bassel Oudat from Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s recent initiative for resolving the Syrian crisis, which he qualified with the statement that he would accept no alternatives, was unequivocally rejected by the Syrian opposition at home and abroad. US and European spokespersons described it as a hollow attempt to remain in power and reiterated their governments’ demands that Al-Assad step down.

Prospects for a political solution to the Syrian crisis seem to have been pushed further out of reach. The remaining options are few; even the best look difficult and costly.

The opposition saw the Al-Assad initiative as an attempt to block any international initiative currently under discussion between Moscow and Washington under UN supervision. They claim Al-Assad ignored the basic demands of the revolution. Opposition spokesmen warned the regime would continue using heavy weaponry against anyone who stood in its way, regardless of the humanitarian costs. Al-Assad, they said, had showed he was determined to cling to power until the bitter end.

There was no abating in the fighting in Syria when Al-Assad announced his initiative. Syrian army artillery continued to pound towns outside Damascus, only a few kilometres away from the place where the president delivered his speech. Several hours later clashes intensified between opposition fighters and government troops in several parts of the country.

Every point in Al-Assad’s proposal was a year and a half too late, indicating his inability to grasp the fact that the Syrian people’s demands have changed and at least 60,000 civilians have died at the hands of his military and security forces. Millions of the regime’s opponents found the initiative provocative. Even the National Coordinating Body (NCB), the most peaceful opposition faction which has been struggling to promote a negotiated transfer of power, expressed pessimism. The NCB now expects more fighting and destruction. It described the initiative as unrealistic and impracticable, and charged that it undermined ongoing efforts by UN Syrian envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Al-Assad, the NCB said, had refused dialogue, negotiation and the peaceful transfer of authority, concluding that his regime is incapable of forging peace or building democracy.

In his speech Al-Assad called upon his supporters to prepare for war to defend “the state”. He stipulated as a condition for a ceasefire that concerned governments must halt their support for the opposition and opposition fighters must surrender. The army, national security and the political leadership were red lines that could not be crossed, implying they will remain under his control and there is no place for the opposition in any dialogue. In addition, he vowed to continue to pursue the military course until the end, adding that political detainees would remain in prison until stability was restored. The latter was widely interpreted as a threat to hold tens of thousands of political prisoners hostage until a new government, parliament and constitution are formed that perpetuate his regime and his control over government and security apparatuses. Little wonder the opposition regarded his initiative not as a gesture of peace but as a renewed declaration of war.

The president’s message was not just aimed at the Syrian people. In addition to rejecting any foreign initiative that did not replicate his own he declared that he would speak with countries that support the opposition but not with the opposition itself. References to the spectre of partition, to the presence of terrorist groups and their threat to the region as to his own readiness to work with the international community to end terrorism were clearly intended to persuade international powers that his regime could be a bulwark against terrorism.

Whether Moscow and Washington appreciated this message is impossible to say. They are unlikely to feel sanguine about the way Al-Assad pre-empted Brahimi who had planned to discuss his own initiative with US and Russian leaders by the middle of this month. The Syrian regime effectively rejected Brahimi’s plans in advance, closing down what had been the only open avenue to resolving the Syrian crisis in view of the general discord among world powers over the issue. Nor will they look kindly on Al-Assad’s threats to escalate the offensive against the Syrian Free Army and other armed opposition groups and to continue the bombardment of Syrian cities in the face of any international initiative that fails to perpetuate his regime.

The Syrian revolution will not be defeated, and the will of the freedom fighters and opposition forces will not be broken. As brutal and bloodthirsty as the regime has been for the past two years, the Syrian people have refused to be diverted from their goals. They will not give in before bringing down a regime that has oppressed them for four decades. Although the tragedy has now engulfed all parts of the country, and an estimated 20 per cent of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed, the people’s resolve remains strong. The opposition has steadily expanded to include millions of the otherwise apolitical men and women who have long suffered from the practices of the regime and its security forces.

After 22 months of revolution the armed opposition controls large tracts of northern and eastern Syria, including crucial gateways to Turkey and Iraq. It also controls an arc of suburbs around the capital. The number of freedom fighters is steadily growing as ranks continue to be swelled by civilian volunteers. 

The regime controls most of the west and south of the country and its warplanes and helicopters can bombard the areas controlled by the opposition. Yet, however cohesive it appears, the regime is inexorably fracturing from within. The economy has collapsed, there are constant defections from the army, and the attrition on its military and human resources is growing.

“For all practical purposes, [Al-Assad’s] speech ended any possibility of a political solution,” Syrian opposition activist Fawaz Tello told Al-Ahram Weekly. “The Syrian opposition must make it clear to the international community… that there is no longer any scope for initiatives for political transition, the last one being that espoused by Brahimi. The regime buried the possibility with the president’s speech. The opposition must also make it clear that this regime and its allies cannot be given more opportunities and, hence, time. Everyone must rally behind a single vision and shift to the only available option, which is to topple this regime totally, and at the hands of the Syrian people. The next step is to ensure the prerequisites of this option, which means international political cover, logistic support, organisation of revolutionaries in Syria and the resolve to transcend personal and partisan ambitions and interests.”

Recent statements by opposition factions suggest the Al-Assad initiative may well have aggravated extremist tendencies. It will certainly reinforce the determination of the Syrian Free Army and opposition militias to resolve the conflict militarily and drive moderate opposition factions, which now despair of a peaceful solution, to radicalise and perhaps join the more militant opposition. Developments of this nature may, in turn, lead the regional and international community to adopt a binding Security Council resolution, especially if the regime’s rejection of international efforts pushes Russia and China to change their attitudes towards such a resolution, hopefully before the outbreak of full scale civil war.

Observers foresee three possible scenarios for the Syrian crisis. Should the international community fail to produce a solution rapidly enough Syria will be reduced to a failed state swept by chaos and civil war. The second scenario envisages the collapse and fragmentation of the Syrian state as a result of the military confrontation between the regime and opposition forces. The third begins with outside intervention beneath an international umbrella that evokes Article 7 of the UN Security Council and works towards a peaceful and gradual transfer of power in Syria.

Al-Assad’s uncompromising speech indicates the regime can only be changed by force. The regime’s rigidity and hawkishness will probably prove the most self-destructive of policies, since it had reinforced the opposition’s resolve. But the opposition still needs either to persuade the international community to act, quickly and in concert, to change the regime before Syria succumbs to total anarchy, or persuade the US and other countries sympathetic to the cause of the Syrian people to arm the military wing of the Syrian opposition to enable it to overthrow the regime without outside intervention.

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