x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Some Syrian activists urge temporary halt to protests

Civil-society and opposition figures in Syria are searching for a compromise between the regime and demonstrators intent on its overthrow. They say the cycle of protests, killings and funerals must be broken immediately if Syria is to avert civil war.

DAMASCUS //Hoping to stop more bloodshed in Syria, some activists are now calling for a pause in anti-government rallies, to give president Bashar al Assad time to prove he is serious about political reforms, which the government has promised.

One plan proposes halting demonstrations for two weeks, in return for immediate prisoner releases and rapid political change. But the suggestion is already faltering in the face of reality.

A number of civil-society and opposition figures have been searching for a compromise between the regime and demonstrators intent on its overthrow. The activists say a self-perpetuating cycle of protests, killings and funerals must be broken immediately if Syria is to stop marching towards a civil war.

But, with events on the ground moving quickly - and the authorities apparently already set on breaking demonstrations with military force and through mass detentions - there seems to be little prospect of fledgling initiatives gaining any real momentum.

Bassam Kadi, a former political prisoner and renowned civil-rights activist living in Damascus, is advocating a 15-day pause on demonstrations, during which time the authorities would have to release all prisoners of conscience, end travel bans on 'blacklisted' activists and allow exiled Syrians to return home without facing prosecution. Draft laws allowing multiple political parties and a free media would also have to be approved.

If, during the pause, the government arrests any protesters, the deal would be off and demonstrations would resume immediately nationwide.

"We have to step back from the brink and calm the situation down," Mr Kadi said in an interview. "Syria has been stretched about as far as it can go and, if both sides keep pulling, it will all explode.

"If that happens, the situation in Libya will look trivial in comparison; it will be a picnic compared to here."

The plan is based on the belief - one widely shared- that the Assad regime will not simply resign in the face of popular disconnect and would, instead, fight to the bitter end using a loyal military powerful enough to win any violent confrontation with protesters.

As such, Mr Kadi says, those wanting to see political reforms happen peacefully in Syria have nothing to lose by putting demonstrations on hold for a short time.

"It's one last chance before the point of no return," he said. "The idea is, give the authorities one final opportunity to prove they are sincere about reform. If they're not, if it is all just empty words, we'll see that soon enough and we can go back to where we are now. We can just settle it on the street and God help us all."

Mr Kadi came up with the plan on Friday, when more than 100 civilians were killed by security forces, according to human-rights groups, the bloodiest single day since protests began. That event made it clear the country was facing disaster, Mr Kadi said.

As a civil-rights campaigner, he is highly critical of the authorities and their failure to undertake faster democratic reforms. He is also unequivocal that the government is ultimately responsible for all violent deaths in the country, of civilians and members of the security forces. Some 350 protesters have been killed in weeks of unrest, human-rights groups say, while the Syrian authorities says hundreds of soldiers and police officers have been killed or wounded by anti-regime gunmen.

At the same time however, Mr Kadi is deeply wary of the protesters, saying their lack of strategy and impossible demands are working against the wishes of the Syrian majority - a majority he says desperately want to see sweeping political reforms but who fear the consequences of trying to topple the regime, or of seeing it replaced with a hardline Islamic government.

On Monday, the proposal was posted on a Facebook page and quickly attracted thousands of followers. It has since been discussed on Arabic-language satellite channels, privately owned Syrian media, as well as among students on university campuses. Mr Kadi said printed copies had been given to some residents of Deraa, the epicentre of the uprising, 100 kilometres south of Damascus.

"From what I heard, many in Deraa were against the idea, saying the government has killed their sons and that there can be no compromise," Mr Kadi said. "But there were also some saying, 'hold on, what do we lose by trying it'."

That was, however, before heavily armed military units, including tanks, swept into the city on Monday, in what analysts said was a move by the authorities to crush dissent once and for all.

"Maybe it's too late now," Mr Kadi admitted. "But there might still be a chance. What happened in Deraa on Monday made it clear what will happen elsewhere if protests continue, so why not give this idea a try. We have reached such a dangerous point."

Other opposition activists, including those rallying demonstrators using online forums, have dismissed the plan, angrily accusing Mr Kadi of being a government stooge and a traitor to the cause of freedom.

They have also pointed out that, since scrapping draconian emergency laws last week, shootings and arbitrary arrests have accelerated - a clear sign, they say, of government bad faith when it comes to any reform agenda.

In addition, many activists have warned that if the protests were to halt for two weeks their momentum would be irrevocably lost, another reason why Mr Kadi's proposal seems set to fail.

And, even in the unlikely event that the authorities were to agree to the plan, Syrian protesters are anything but united and getting them collectively to pause could be impossible, activists say, given the amount of blood now shed and the level of anger.

Whereas once demonstrators were calling for moderate political changes, they are increasingly now demanding President Bashir al Assad and the ruling elite step aside. "A group of us tried to come up with a settlement that would stop the bloodshed by striking some balance between protesters and the government," said Abdul Karim Rehawe, head of the Syrian Human Rights League. The plan he described was effectively the same as that put forward by Mr Kadi.

"We discussed it for hours but whatever way we looked, it would fail for two reasons: one, we have no authority over the protesters, to keep them off the street and, two, there is just no trust in the government that it will keep its promises."