DAMASCUS// The Arab League is set to convene in an emergency session in Cairo today to discuss Syria, as international pressure grows on President Bashar Al Assad to find a political solution to an eight-month anti-regime uprising that has left more than 3,500 people dead.
The meeting takes place against a background of growing impatience and frustration not only from other Arab capitals and protesters in Syria but from another more surprising source: former Syrian officials who served under the late president, Hafez Al Assad, Bashar's father.
A group of former high-ranking Baath party members and regime officials, led by Mohammad Suleman, a long serving minister under Hafez Al Assad, has proposed that the Syrian leader hold talks with anti-regime activists as part of a wider plan to transition to democracy. That is also part of the peace plan Mr Al Assad agreed with the Arab League this month.
Meanwhile, Syrian security forces fired on anti-government protests yesterday and conducted sweeping raids during violence that killed at least 13 people, activists said. Mass protests after Friday prayers, followed by crackdowns by security forces, have become a weekly cycle throughout the uprising. But in recent weeks, the violence has spiked dramatically amid increasing signs that some protesters are taking up arms to protect themselves.
To date, there have been no direct political talks between the authorities and those calling for their overthrow. A regime-sponsored "comprehensive national dialogue" has not included opposition political figures or representatives of the protest movement.
During two separate meetings, the first a one-on-one talk with Mr Al Assad on September 20 lasting more than an hour, Mr Suleman said he had outlined a detailed plan that would quickly result in power sharing and a coalition government involving members of the opposition, including protesters.
"The plan was comprehensive. It would result in the creation of a modern, civil, democratic state, with rule of law, an elected president with a limit on how many terms they can hold office, and a division of power between the judiciary, the executive and parliament," he said last month.
Four days after that initial meeting, Mr Suleman and a delegation of 31 other members of the National Democratic Initiative (NDI), the group of former ministers and Baathist officials he heads, made a more detailed three-and-a-half-hour presentation to Mr Al Assad at his behest.
Mr Suleman said the Syrian president had asked detailed questions of all of the NDI members and his reaction to their proposal had been "positive". It also calls for an end to heavy security measures against peaceful protests, for thousands of political prisoners to be freed and for security officers and opposition militants to be held accountable for any killings they have carried out.
"Calling a national congress with the opposition, sitting down for talks with them will cut the way for foreign military intervention in Syria which is something we all want to avoid," Mr Suleman said. "And by clearly marking out a road map to achieving a civil democratic state and circulation of power, we can get out of this crisis."
He warned that delaying sweeping reforms would only deepen the problems Syria faces.
"There are peaceful protesters but we must now admit there is an armed element to the uprising," Mr Suleman said. "We must also realise that the longer political reforms are delayed, the bigger the armed uprising will become because it has a pretext."
The Arab League made a broadly similar proposal, which was accepted by Syria on November 2. It called for a withdrawal of military forces from residential neighbourhoods, freedom for political prisoners and for talks between the regime and the opposition in Cairo under Arab League mediation.
That plan has been thrown into disarray, however, with continued deadly operations by Syrian security forces and little sign that either side is prepared to sit down and talk.
During preliminary talks at the Arab League talks yesterday, Syria's ambassador to the organisation insisted that Damascus was not only committed to the plan but had "already put most" of its articles into effect. He proposed an Arab League delegation visit Syria to see for itself. Protesters and human rights activists insist those promises are hollow, citing the deaths in Homs yesterday. Two members of the security services were also killed in the city, state-run media said. It made no mention of any civilian casualties, except for two deaths in Idleb province it blamed on a "terrorist group" .
Human Rights Watch yesterday issued a report in which it said Syrian security forces had committed crimes against humanity in Homs, with systematic abuse of civilians including torture and murder. It said 104 people had been killed in the city since the Arab League peace plan was agreed by Damascus last week.
Speaking of the officials who worked with Hafez Al Assad, an analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "These are people Mr Al Assad can trust, people who do not have an agenda against him so it is important for him to be hearing this from them."
Mr Suleman's proposal is certain to be hamstrung by the same apparently intractable problems that have blocked any solutions to the crisis.
Opposition groups have said all political prisoners must be freed, peaceful protests allowed and army units returned to their bases as a minimum precondition for talks. Many protesters have gone further, calling for Mr Assad's overthrow and execution.
Syrian officials, who insist they are fighting a foreign-backed Islamic insurgency, say that cannot happen and that security operations will continue in tandem with incremental political reforms. They have not proposed Mr Al Assad face an open election for the presidency.
Part of the NDI proposal includes a maximum of two terms of office for any future president, with each term strictly limited in duration. Mr Al Assad is in his second seven-year term as president but under the existing constitution there is no requirement for him to stand down or face a competitive election when that period expires. His father ruled the country for three decades until his death in 2000.
The NDI plan would leave the path open for Mr Al Assad to run for a third term because it would be his first under the new democratic legal code.
"Assad and his supporters are still confident that he has the support of the majority in Syria so for that reason they might be prepared to have an election," said one adviser to the NDI group, on condition of anonymity.
The NDI also believes that, with the majority of Syrians not openly supporting street protests and the momentum of demonstrations curtailed, opposition groups would agree to contest a presidential election, if real reforms had been enacted and guarantees could be given about its integrity.
With neither side able to comprehensively defeat their opponents, the only alternatives to a rapid transition to democracy under Mr Al Assad's stewardship are the "nightmare" scenarios of civil war or foreign military intervention, Mr Suleman warned.