Rays of Hope in Syria’s Dark Horizon
After two years of crisis in Syria and its transformation into an all-out civil war and a regional crisis, Bashar Assad, the Syrian President, in an interview with Spiegel magazine, has accepted his mistakes and those of the security forces with regard to the people’s protests in Syria. Does this mean that the approach of the Syrian government has changed regarding this crisis?
Since the outset of this crisis, I have, many times, in my interviews stated that the crisis in Syria was basically a domestic issue and so long as the government of Syria does not confess and accept the issue that the major problem lies within the Syrian government and that the people’s protests were against the existing corruption and dictatorship in the system and not foreign instigation, this crisis will not be resolved. Does the statement made by Bashar Assad in this interview based on accepting his mistakes mean accepting the killing of the people? This could mean that Bashar Assad has accepted that his approach towards the initial protests of the people was wrong and he has killed people. But when you look at the situation in Syria today, you would see that many of the Syrian government’s opposition are in prison and due to lack of enough space inside the prisons, even the stadiums have been transformed into prisons. Therefore, if this issue is serious, it should lead to change in the approach in treating the opposition. Nevertheless, it was said from the beginning that the violent clashes of the security forces of the government with the popular opposition of Bashar Assad would direct them towards armed fighting and armed movements.
Of course, in this interview, Bashar Assad has, once again, said that these clashes were imported from outside the country. Foreign interventions in the Syrian crisis must not be ignored. The influence of al-Qaeda in this country is one of the obvious problems and the fundamentalist forces have poured into this crisis from all over the world.
In this interview, Bashar Assad has stated that “From the beginning, we had decided to respond to the protesters’ demands and a committee was formed and changed the constitution and later we held a referendum.” Is this statement correct?
If the demands of the protesters were responded to in due time, the crisis would not have reached this point. What is clear is that the crisis is formed based on oppression against the peaceful protests of the people. Certainly now, foreign hands can be seen in the Syrian crisis and al-Qaeda and the radicals have intensified this crisis. But in my opinion the root of the problem lies within the government of Bashar Assad and the existing dictatorship and corruption in this system.
Compared with other leaders of countries wherein revolutions occurred, like Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya, Bashar Assad was in power for a shorter time and due to his youth had the ability to solve the problems. Why didn’t this happen?
Following the demise of Hafez Assad and in the beginning of the government of Bashar Assad, signs of freedom could be seen in Syrian society and Bashar Assad attempted to make changes. But due to the inflexible structure and strong organization of the Baath Party in Syria, these changes did not last and soon the situation returned to that of Hafez Assad’s time. Bashar Assad, as a young force, could have solved the previous problems without bloodshed but this opportunity was lost due to the existing problems and the inabilities of Bashar Assad and gradually economic discriminations were intensified among the Syrian people. Relatives of Bashar Assad took great advantage of their economic relations with the government. These issues intensified people’s dissatisfaction and expanded the rift between the government and the people. This rift was not as deep as it is today during the Hafez Assad era. The deepening of this rift led to the present problems in Syria.
One of the differences between Syria and other countries wherein revolutions occurred, like Tunisia and Egypt, was Syria’s position with regard to Israel. Syria is considered as one of the countries in the axis of resistance. Couldn’t this issue have lead to the legitimacy of Bashar Assad’s government?
The problem in Syria is not that it is not anti-Israel. Certainly Syria is the most anti-Israeli Arab state in the region. The problem in Syria, contrary to what is said, is not that it has not defended its territories. Incidentally, during the past several decades, the government of Syria has defended the Golan Heights to the best of its abilities. If its attempts were not successful, it was due to its lack of ability. The regime of Bashar Assad has certainly defended the axis of resistance and these supports should be appreciated. Thus, contrary to the beliefs of the opposition that deny all these measures, it must be said, in my opinion, that the government of Syria caused these efforts to be forgotten through its dealings with the people’s protests in the beginning, as Bashar Assad has mentioned in this interview. Using violence against the protesters and the political opponents led them towards armed movements and this was the beginning of Syria’s destruction. Bashar Assad had denied the existence of a civil war in Syria before but now he accepts that he has strong opposition which do not fit within the promised reforms.
What should Bashar Assad do now?
The first thing that he should do is that he must accept that the problem was within the Syrian government and the violence used by the security forces against the opposition has caused foreign forces to intervene in the crisis and the framework of solving the problems to move beyond domestic solutions.
Could Bashar Assad take actions now from the position of power and advance his own agenda in talks with the opposition?
In popular movements which reach a critical and revolutionary state, the ruling regime is usually not trusted and even if a 180-degree turn does take place, the people cannot accept it and they feel that this government cannot be trusted. The reforms which have, so far, been promised by Assad have not led to serious changes in the trend of the government. Some changes, like constitutional reforms, have taken place at a time when there was no other choice. Today contradictory statements are heard about the changes and reforms. At one time, he says that he will not negotiate with the armed opposition. Then he says that he would not negotiate with the terrorists. Not negotiating with the terrorists and foreign groups is very natural but some of these opposition groups, as Bashar Assad himself has said, are from the army forces. They were commanders or soldiers of the Syrian army and they are Syrians. Syrian officials repeatedly state that until the time when the opposition sets aside its arms, they will not negotiate with them. But a Syrian minister recently stated that we will negotiate with Syrian opposition and we are negotiating with the Free Army in certain regions. These contradictions show that they are not willing to give necessary concessions before the Geneva Conference.
You mentioned the Geneva Conference. What has happened to this conference? How can it help the resolution of this crisis?
The Geneva-2 Conference is postponed each time due to certain reasons. This conference is mainly under the control of the US and Russia. The existing delay is also related to the disagreements between the US and Russia with regard to the crisis in Syria. Russia has recently stated that negotiations can take place with the armed opposition which is not al-Qaeda. Of course the differences among the Assad opposition are also a barrier to the holding of this conference. There is also a radical opposition who are not even willing to negotiate with Bashar Assad. On the other hand, there are groups who believe that they should enter into diplomatic negotiations with Assad’s government in order to gain power. There are also differences with regard to the Geneva-2 objectives. The context of the Geneva-1 Conference states that decisions should be made with regard to the establishment of a government comprised of the opposition and the present government. Apparently, this transition government has full authority but the government of Bashar Assad is not willing to give authority to the transition government with regard to the army and security issues. Thus, no agreement has been made in this regard between the US and Russia and the opposition have not reached an agreement either. As Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi pessimistically stated, it is improbable that this conference would take place until the middle of the next month.
Does this mean that the current problems will continue?
Yes. The problems will continue but it seems that the cooperation of Syria with the international community with regard to the destruction of chemical weapons has highlighted the horizon of agreements. It seems that with the tone of Bashar Assad in these interviews and flexibilities of this kind, one can hope that a solution could be reached. The differences between the Syrian opposition in the internal scene are growing day by day and this issue can encourage them to negotiate with the government of Bashar Assad. These differences will determine the parties which would participate in the Geneva-2 Conference.