x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Assad offers only more of the same - mukhabarat brutality

Bashar al Assad's speech yesterday should remind the world that this dictator has no place in a future Syria and that support for the rebels is the only way forward.

The world still blinks every time that Bashar Al Assad speaks, as if it has not learnt anything from 21 months of violence.

In his speech yesterday - his ninth since the uprising began - the dictator offered a plan that would include a lengthy, complicated process of gradual change and "truth and reconciliation". That would, in theory, lead to a new coalition government and a new constitution.

The speech was preceded by an aggressive two-week diplomatic campaign by the regime's allies and the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. That renewed push for diplomacy followed 140 countries' recognition of the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people, Nato Patriot missiles and military personnel that were dispatched to Turkey's border, and pledges of increased support for the opposition.

The diplomatic overture by the regime is part of a Russian-backed plan that would keep Al Assad in power until presidential elections in the summer of 2014. And the diplomacy appears to have succeeded in slowing down aid to the rebels, with reports that arms supplies are drying up. But the speech yesterday should remind the world that this dictator has no place in a future Syria and that support for the rebels is the only way forward.

Russia probably pressured on Al Assad to announce a plan of reconciliation. But the speech sounded more vindictive, dismissive and exclusivist than even his previous bombast. For example, he said the plan was directed at only segments of the opposition, and that "those who reject the offer, I say to them: why would you reject an offer that was not meant for you in the first place?" In other points, he emphasised vengeance rather than reconciliation. He also blamed the rebels for the destruction of infrastructure and for cutting off electricity and communications.

"Syria accepts advice but never accepts orders," he said. "All of what you heard in the past in terms of plans and initiatives were soap bubbles, just like the [Arab] Spring."

It was clear that he tried to sound steadfast, but his voice betrayed him several times. And before his departure from the room, the crowds chanted "may God protect you" - a chant that is used when someone is threatened. The usual party line is "with our soul and blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you".

Why would the regime offer a plan now, when it has not made a single meaningful concession since the beginning of the uprising? The violence would never have reached such staggering levels had Al Assad offered reasonable reforms from the beginning. Any hope that he can engineer an end to the violence is an illusion, which will only prolong and worsen the crisis. If anything, the speech showed that the regime will not change its policies except under duress.

The aim seemed to be threefold: to create the impression that the rebels refuse political settlements; to add to the world's reluctance about arming the rebels; and to question the legitimacy of the National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

The proposal of a new constitution is merely a red herring. Syrians did not rise up against the constitution, nor have they demanded constitutional change. People rose up against brutality, and the fact that the existing constitution was never honoured - the mukhabarat apparatus has dominated almost every aspect of Syrian life. The immediate cause of the uprising in Deraa was the mukhabarat, who arrested and tortured school boys for writing anti-regime graffiti and then humiliated their families.

Nor did Syrians rise up to be included in a coalition government. Any government that includes these same criminals will be no different.

People rose up against the security apparatus that has plagued Syrian society, prevented progress, infringed on individual and public liberties, and tortured and killed tens of thousands of Syrians. These crimes, so obvious during this uprising, have been a normal state of affairs even during periods of calm. If a transition does not affect Al Assad, the mukhabarat apparatus and the army structure, then what does it offer?

Compromise does not exist in the regime's lexicon: political settlement means surrender, dialogue means subjugation, and a Syrian-Syrian solution means leaving Syrians to the regime's mercy.

If the world wants to help Syrians, there is only one way: step up support for the rebels. The Assad speech was a sign of desperation. Recent moves, including the recognition of the opposition and the pledges of support, can work. More support for the rebels only increases the chances of a political settlement, which might even include safe passage for Al Assad. But a solution cannot come on his terms.

To be helpful, support for the rebels cannot simply prolong the fighting. The rebels need to be able to tip the balance. As the situation stands now, the regime may be able to fight for years, not just months.

In the beginning of the conflict, the situation was straightforward: young men and women, believing that the regime would not and indeed was unable to reform itself, demanded a gradual change towards democracy. As the regime's repression reached staggering levels after months of peaceful protests, the situation became more complex as more Syrians joined the rebellion - some for freedom, others for religious or more narrow goals. The country began to fracture.

The price that Syria pays may be too high. But that is what it takes to bring down the Baathist regime.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140