“A Call to President Assad to Launch Democratic Reform before Syria stumbles toward Sectarian Conflict Iraq-Style,” by Inhabitant of Damascus
Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, July 20th, 2011
A Call to President Assad to Launch Democratic Reform before Syria stumbles toward Sectarian Conflict Iraq-Style
by Inhabitant of Damascus (A retired diplomat, living in Damascus)
for Syria Comment July 20, 2011
There have been a number of developments in the last few weeks which have provided a little more clarity on the situation here in Syria. The first event was the conflict at Jisr al-Shagour in which many Syrian soldiers were killed. After this, the existance of Salafist (and perhaps other) insurrectionists in Syria, intent on destabilising the regime and stirring sectarian tensions/hatreds, cannot be denied. This important and dangerous element in the Syria mix was aptly described by Alistair Crooke in his ‘Unfolding the Syrian Paradox‘ article earlier this month. The killing of security forces continues. Three were buried yesterday, killed in Homs.
Prayers in Homs during a demonstration, April 18, 2011
The second development was the visit of the US and France ambassadors to Hama to ‘support’ the opposition. This visit underlined the point that outsiders have an agenda in destabilising the Assad regime. The US has been funding exiled opposition groups for years, and after 2003 have sought to undermine the regime through sanctions. The ambassadors’ action has simply deepened divisions in an already increasingly divided and angry nation.
The third development was the Istanbul conference of exiled opposition figures. Although some 350 turned up, there was little sense of cohesion, and those attending seemed out of touch with the situation on the ground. Most (there are exceptions) have little credibility inside Syria, and no influence on what is happening on the ground.
The fourth event was the two-day conference in Damascus involving a number of opposition figures, independents, Baath party members and regime representative. This was a positive undertaking. Unfortunately it seems likely that this was part of the tactic of ‘let’s talk and set up committees to talk about reform’ of the regime, perhaps to buy time while the streets are cleansed of protest. There are grave doubts about the sincerity of the regime while civilians are dying.
The fifth observation is that regime has stepped up the organisation of pro-government rallies. On Umayyad Square in Damascus on Monday hundreds of thousands of pro-regime people turned up to celebrate the president and the regime with singing and dancing and a huge fireworks display. This lengthy, televised and gross waste of public funds, at a time when Syrian civilians are dying in the streets, seemed bizarre and out of touch. Giant flags have been deployed to parade in pro-regime territory. As I write this I am watching Syria TV’s coverage of a very large rally in Sueida, between Damascus and Deraa, with a 2.3km flag draped through the city. This is very well organised with helicopters overhead filming the tens of thousands who turned out for the party. Sueida is mainly a Druze and Christian area. I saw very few veiled women attending, and to my relatively uninformed eye, the gathering seemed heavily dominated by these two minorities which fear a Sunni ascendancy in Syria.
The sixth and most worrying event has been the deterioration of the situation in Homs, and what has been reported as a sectarian conflict between Alawis and Sunnis, taking the lives of 30 or so people. The further killing of perhaps up to 16 civilians at the funerals of 10 people near the Khaled ibn Waleed mosque further adds to the tensions there. Who did the funeral killings? YouTube footage provides no evidence. Salafists? Alawi Shabiha? Regime security forces? Who knows?
So where does this leave Syria? We may now be observing the beginning of a slow gradual process of a complete breakdown in Syrian society – an internal disintegration. I doubt that the regime can retrieve the situation – they have lost control of the situation of the streets – the armed gangs, including Salafists, are showing a determined ability to embarrass regime forces at will. Ineptitude, poor discipline and fragmentation in the security forces has resulted in the growing number of civilian deaths. The regime cannot protect its citizens. Every week this situation goes on, Assad loses respect, particularly on the part of his Sunni support. And every week, the sectarian divisions deepen. The army is coming under severe pressure – how long can it sustain current regime policy?
The only way I believe that Bashar can retrieve the situation is to announce a clear process of governmental reform culminating in elections in say 8 months time. This should include a rewrite of the constitution. He should call in the UN to assist in the electoral process, and call on friends like Brazil, Turkey and South Africa to provide assistance (through the UN) in formulating a new constitution. Bashar needs to gain the confidence of the protest movement very quickly to stop the rot. Only by convincing protesters to stay off the streets for a time will the Salafist insurrectionist threat be exposed and dealt with. The protest movement is currently providing cover for the armed gangs to stir sectarian conflict Iraq-style. If the situation continues to drift – then I fear for the future of all Syrians. Kilometres-long flags and fireworks just won’t do the trick.
Burned car on the streets of Banyas in April. It reads, “Be careful… You are in Banyas, not Israel. Down with the regime. Shabbiha (The name for the irregular, loyalist troops, mostly Alawi, who have become the symbol of the regime for the protestors)