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The Syrian regime is not about to collapse


Nehad Ismail's account of the bleak prospects of Syrian opposition explains why few are enthusiastic about regime change in Syria, despite the urgent need for reform.

There has been a plethora of headlines recently about the imminent collapse of the Syrian regime. To quote just a few: "Syrian opposition closes ranks" "Exiled Syrian opposition calls for regime change" "Syrian opposition forms alliance" "Syrian opposition unite against Assad" and "Syrian opposition unites to oust Assad". The brutal fact, however, is that the Syrian opposition is too weak to topple the Assad regime. It is fragmented and divided. It has no coherent strategy to achieve common objectives. There is no co-ordination and no workable program unifying the fractious factions.

There exist in Syria more than 20 political parties, groupings and coalitions of all sorts each with a different program and agenda. The disunity is emphasized by the conflicting and contradictory statements emanating periodically from various factions. The opposition suffers from fundamental shortcomings. They don't consult with each other. They don't see eye to eye on many issues. They accuse each other of treachery and reliance on foreign money. Some are accused of having links with Israel; others are Islamic fundamentalists. The Muslim Brotherhood has been accused of plotting to use the democratic process to seize power and turn the country into an Islamic caliphate state.

The common factor that unites them is opposition to the Assad regime. The problem is they don't know how to go about it. Many of them rely on fiery statements and slogans but nothing else. With the exception of one or two groupings which have a pragmatic workable program to rescue Syria and transform it into a democracy by peaceful means, the majority lack a coherent strategy and a workable program of action. The much vaunted Damascus Declaration was so full of contradictions that many parties refused to subscribe to it. A number of meetings and conferences were held in the USA and Europe with little or no noticeable impact. The regime ignored them and continued its crackdown against dissidents and Kurdish demonstrators.

The recent meeting in Brussels between the secular Abdul Halim Khaddam and the Islamist Ali Sadruddin Bayanouni, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, received more publicity than it deserved, as little was achieved apart from a vague statement. A closer look at the joint statement leaves the reader more confused and less convinced of the participants' ability to transform Syria from a dictatorship into a truly democratic and free state. Neither of these leaders have a popular base in Syria, and both are detested for different reasons. Abdul Halim Khaddam is detested for serving a corrupt dictatorial regime for 35 years then suddenly claiming to be a democrat. Bayanouni is associated with the wave of the Muslim Brotherhood violence that Swept Syria at the end of 1970s and early 1980s.

However in recent weeks Mr. Ali Sadruddin Bayanouni, Syrian leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam and others have set up a "National Salvation Front" in Belgium. Mr. Bayanouni insists that his movement is moderate and has no plans to turn Syria into a state governed by Sharia law, convinced though that it would be successful in case of elections. He also said in recent interviews "the Islamic tide is spreading and the secular movements have failed".

In their Brussels meeting, the representatives of the 17 Islamist, secular, Liberal, Communist and Kurdish movements, in exile for many years, have issued a "National Program for Change" that includes the creating of a transitional government in exile.

The other groupings is the Washington based Reform Party of Syria, led by Farid Ghadry, who has been described by Syrians as "the Syrian version of Ahmed Chalabi" in reference to Mr. Chalabi an Iraqi opposition figure who played a significant part in persuading the US Administration to invade Iraq. He is now in disfavor both in Iraq and the USA. Ghadry's group is looked upon with suspicion due to its links with the USA.

By far the biggest grouping is the United National Group headed by former Assad regime strong man Rifaat Al-Assad, the former Vice President, and brother of former President Hafez Al-Assad. Rifaat was exiled from Syria in 1984, apparently because of a coup attempt against his brother. He now heads the United National Group (UNG), an umbrella organization that welcomes all opposition parties and groups that are interested in reforming Syria by non-violent means .The UNG introduced a program for reform and salvation of Syria with a simple message and objective; that is, to transform Syria from a dictatorship into a democracy by peaceful means, through a program of gradual reforms and change. This program is gaining momentum and support in Syria and outside. The UNG Web site, literature, and pronouncements indicate that Rifaat Al-Assad wishes to return to Syria and launch "The National Reconciliation Initiative".

Rifaat Assad is generally known as the architect of the brutal El-Hama massacre, in which many thousands of people were killed in order to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood.

A spokesman for Rifaat Assad chose to describe it this way:

"Dr. Rifaat Al-Assad was the first leader in the Arab World to face the serious threat of Islamic inspired terrorism. He bravely stood up to them and rooted them out. The decisive action against terror, helped maintain the cohesion of Syrian Society, the territorial integrity of Syria and keep the country united."

When asked about the Hama massacre, the spokesman said:

Certain mistakes were made by some officers, but Rifaat Al-Assad was not directly responsible, besides he was part of a Security Establishment comprising dozens of individuals who were collectively responsible for the security and protection of the country.

Many Syrians were indeed relieved to be rid of the violent depredations of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Rifaat's record in acting against them may be what earned him some American supporters as well. However, the El-Hama massacre was notorious, and Rifaat's role in it is probably more prominent then his spokesman wants to admit. Rifaat is quoted by Thomas Friedman as boasting about El-Hama, "What are you talking about 7000? we killed 38,000."

Some change must occur in Syria. The regime is still refusing to heed the call for national dialogue. It continues interfering in Lebanon and meddling in Iraqi and Palestinian affairs. This behavior has alienated neighboring countries as well as the US and France. Internally, the repressive regime still acts as Saddam did in the years before the collapse of Baghdad exactly three years ago . Arbitrary arrests, abuse of human rights, torture, and corruption are rife in Syria.

This regime will not be saved by co-operation in the Hariri investigation and the tightening of the borders with Iraq. The only alternative for Syria is a comprehensive national reconciliation initiative, followed by a series of drastic reforms to allow the formation of political parties and free elections. Many of the provisions of the constitution are out of date and are not suitable for the 21st century. Emergency Law and martial courts need to be repealed. New laws allowing the free formation of political parties and election are urgently needed.

The Islamic threat still exists and the Jihadis might make a move when they feel the time has come, especially if there is no reform. Unfortunately the regime is not listening and it is playing politics with the future of the Syrian people. No one in Syria would like to see a repeat of the disastrous Iraqi experience. However, the regime's behavior is not serving the interests of the Syrian people who deserve freedom and democracy, but without the upheaval and the violence.

Nehad Ismail

Nehad Ismail is a UK-based commentator on Middle East Affairs.

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Replies: 8 comments

Syria needs change, but people prefer stability if change is going to bring chaos like Iraq.
Most people don't want the Muslim Brotherhood to take power. Rifaat Assad was a hero, he protected Christians and other minorities from the terrorism. If he comes back and submit himself for election, the people will decide if they want him.

Posted by George Khalil @ 03/31/2006 04:33 PM CST

George is right, Syrians prefer the ruling dictatorship to any Islamic system.
Since when Khaddam has become a democrat and Banayouni is not an acceptable alternative. As for Rifaat Al-Assad some people support him sepcially in the army, and some people are afraid of him. Also the American backed opposition reminds the Syrian people of the invasion of Iraq. The writer seem to think that Rifaat Al-assad is qualified to take over.I think the West should help the internal opposition to bring change.

Posted by Mazen Abu Eid @ 03/31/2006 06:45 PM CST

I appreciate the concerns of George Khalil and Mazen Abu Eid. Just a few points of clarification:
first: the Syrian people deserves to live under a democratic system.
2nd: the change must come by peaceful means.
3rd: Regarding Rifaat Al-Assad, he strenously denied any direct involvement in the bloody events in Hama and he has said that he is prepared to submit himself to the judgement of the people through the ballot voting box.
4th: what matters now is national reconciliation and to learn from past mistakes and work for a better Syria. This happened in South Africa after the collapse of the apartheid regime.

Posted by nehad ismail @ 03/31/2006 10:26 PM CST

The writer seems to imply that everything is the Muslim Brotherhood's fault.
Over the years the Muslim Brotherhood has moderated its stance and is ready to participate in the political system and we have seen some new alliances forming between them and other groups. So please stop villifying the Muslims.

A R Al-shami
Germany (Syrian exile).

Posted by Abdul Rahman Al-shami @ 04/01/2006 05:01 PM CST

The minorities in Syria would only see harm done by supporting any government other than the Assad regime.

Posted by ETG @ 04/02/2006 07:46 PM CST

ETG's fear is justified. But a change to a free dmocratic system should protect the minorities. My only reservation is this; if the Islamists win as they did in Palestine, they might make life difficult for secular Muslims and others, in which case give me Rifaat Al-Assad anytime. Bashar is a good man, but ineffective. He cannot bring real reforms because of the handful of strong people around him. Only Rifaat can get the reform done. He is not afraid of anyone.

Posted by Ziad Sa'ad - Lebanon @ 04/03/2006 02:50 PM CST

Syria needs reform, not Islamic state. ETG is right the people are afraid of the alternative. Look what's happening in Iraq. We don't need this in Syria.

Posted by Mustafa Halabi @ 04/04/2006 01:27 AM CST

The real opposition is inside but it is weak. The outside opposition is stronger but the Syrian people don't trust them. Many Syrians believe that if the opposition from outside tak over, they will become dictators.

Posted by K Haddad @ 04/08/2006 08:49 PM CST

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