x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

After all this misery, how can Syrians live together again?

The Assad regime knows the outside world desperately wants a political settlement and is playing on that dynamic. The opposition and its friends must not take the bait.

Abu Imad was a notorious mukhabarat officer in the town of Al Bukamal, in eastern Syria.

Part of his job was to ensure that religious clerics did not preach outside the government's line. If they did, he would unleash his men to arrest and torture them - and then monitor them for the rest of their lives.

"We're fighting Wahhabism whenever we find it," the officer once told a new graduate in Sharia studies, who had visited him to build trust and avoid any future arrest. This young imam, now a commander of an anti-regime faction, says this officer acted with the callous, pathological arrogance characteristic of the Baathist regime.

Then in mid-November, Abu Imad and 20 of his crew were killed in a battle with the Free Syrian Army. His body, dumped in the street, lay there for days; no one was willing to bury it.

Scenes like that may bring closure to those whose kinsfolk or friends have been killed by the regime's forces in the most brutal ways imaginable. Many hope to see Bashar Al Assad's body in the street. But is vengeance the best way forward?

Talk of a political settlement with the regime has resurfaced following a series of indications by the regime and its allies that a compromise might be considered: Vice president Farouq Al Sharaa told the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar last Monday that neither the regime nor the opposition can win militarily and that a historic settlement is needed. Almost simultaneously, Iran offered a six-point plan to solve the Syrian crisis. And Russia hinted that it is no longer committed to the survival of the dictator as head of state.

These signals are an attempt by the regime to distract attention from last week's international recognition of the opposition National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, a step taken at the same time as Patriot missiles and troops were sent close to Syria's border.

To a degree the regime has succeeded in its attempt. A number of media reports and diplomatic moves over the past few days appear to disregard what Syrians have gone through since the last time the regime spoke of a national dialogue. The regime knows that the western powers would look positively upon a political settlement that would sideline extremists, and it is playing on that dynamic. The opposition and its friends must not take the bait.

Outside support for the opposition needs to continue, even increase. The international community may be tempted to put the brakes on, but the regime's previous calls for diplomacy have been mere ruses to stall for time. Unless the regime offers a meaningful concession, aid to the rebels should be stepped up. It is time the world learnt that only the rebels' advance can compel the regime to reconsider its policies and a way out.

The UN envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, reportedly arrived in Damascus yesterday. Any resulting political deal that could be perceived as a rebranding of the regime would lead to chaos and disintegration. Meanwhile, as the situation drags on, extremist forces are increasingly building their influence within Syrian society.

A comprehensive solution that will satisfy the Syrian people will not include a place for this president. He must go - that is a minimum for the families of around 50,000 victims, nearly a million refugees and hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

The sacrifices made by millions of people and thousands of villages and towns make any incomplete political change impossible.

But the opposition also needs to accept the prospect of a solution that involves safe passage for the president and those around him. The rebels may defeat the regime but it is also possible the regime will hold on to power much longer, and kill many more Syrians.

Justice at the cost of more bloodshed? It's a tough question, especially to those who have lost dear ones. But it is a question the opposition needs to discuss, publicly.

Where does Syria as a country fall in this equation? If the ruler and those around him are spared, people will take revenge on his supporters. Who then would be put on trial? Would the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled their homes, some after losing family members, simply return and live beside those who have supported the regime? Answers to such questions will determine whether Syria will be saved from itself.

At least 10,000 pro-regime Syrians, including a few of the regime's top masterminds, have been killed. That does not nearly equal the number or pain of the regime's victims, but people should be reminded that the suffering has not all been on one side.

Al Bukamal, my hometown in eastern Syria, presents a viable model of popular reconciliation. The town has been completely held by the rebels since November 17. People who had supported the regime are now living peacefully in their communities as the rebels have set up the groundwork for future governance. Other people disapprove of their neighbours' former support for the regime, but stop short of assaulting them.

Moaz Khatib, the chief of the National Coalition, has in the past spoken and written extensively about forgiveness. He would do well to emphasise that discourse again as the opposition tips the balance against the regime.

Vengeance does not build a nation, it simply damages it further.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140