Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Opportunity Of The Opposition In Syria

By Elias Harfoush
Syrian authorities have dealt with the meeting held by a number of opposition figures at the Semiramis Hotel in Damascus a week ago as a historical event, and one tantamount to the regime turning against itself. State television cameras were there, and the government news agency (SANA – Syrian Arab News Agency) published the text of the closing statement as if it were one of the official documents of a Baath Party conference, despite the fact that it includes calls that do not agree with the regime’s practices, such as “putting an end to the security option”, “ensuring the right to peaceful protest”, “inviting Arab and international media to cover what is happening in complete freedom”, etc… As for members of the security forces, there were present of course, but away from the entrance of the hotel where the meeting was held, a sign not unindicative of the fact that this opposition meeting was being held under the eyes and ears of the regime, not outside of its control.
Indicative also is the fact that the Semiramis meeting was held after conferences and actions by the opposition abroad, between Turkey and Brussels, the capital of the European Union, not to mention Moscow and Washington. It is as if the Syrian regime seeks to take away even the opposition card from those who oppose it and place it under its wing, i.e. turn it into a bargaining chip on the domestic scene – this after having announced that it was launching a campaign of reform “led by President Bashar Al-Assad”, in an attempt to renew its political legitimacy by all means necessary, even if such means include opening up to opposition figures on the domestic scene, despite the fact that most of these figures have tried such “openness” in the past and suffered imprisonment and torture at the hands of that same regime.
It is clear from such a policy – one that seeks to blend the stick of the security solution, with which it is confronting the ongoing protests, with the carrot of decreasing political pressure on the opposition – that there are two messages the regime wants to send: one to the domestic scene, which is that the regime does not mind taking the initiative of reform itself, but under its own ceiling and its own conditions; and the other to the international scene, which is that it has the ability to shed its skin and renew itself on its own, and does not need or approve of any foreign interference or tutelage, wherever it may originate from. And perhaps this is what Minister Walid Al-Muallem meant when he responded to Turkey’s calls for reform by saying that his country would teach everyone the fundamentals of democracy!
Yet the question that this stick-and-carrot policy puts forward concerns the extent which the Syrian regime can reach in favorably responding to opposition members, and the extent to which the latter can adapt to the regime remaining as it is, even after the promised plastic surgery, if it even takes place.
That is because there is a vast difference between the declared goals of the Syrian opposition and the goals of the regime. Indeed, despite government attempts to suggest the existence of disagreements between the domestic opposition and the opposition abroad, with the regime being willing to meet with the demands of the domestic scene but rejecting the activity of the opposition abroad, this kind of geographical classification the Syrian media is putting so much effort into does not change much about the reality of the demands. Opposition members, wherever they may be, agree on the demand to move towards “a pluralistic, democratic civil state”. And the regime does not mind, as its President said, allowing for reforms that would include dialogue with the opposition and a new law for political parties, even reaching up to a new constitution. Yet it is hard for anyone to expect that this will include changing the nature of the regime, and moving from a one-party system to a pluralistic one, in the sense that the opposition means it – in other words for matters to end with the President leaving his seat to another President, who would come to power as a result of the pluralistic, democratic process which the opposition seeks to establish in Syria.
In addition to this, the regime continuing to walk the path of the security solution alone, and to keep the process of reform within the confines of mere promises, will lead in the end to burning away the cards of the domestic opposition, whatever the background of its members, and clearing away the artificial differences between them and those for whom circumstances have imposed that they exercise their opposition from abroad.
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 04/07/2011

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