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Former regime insider says only democracy can save Syria

Only a shift to democracy can save Syria from looming sectarian violence, says the former minister of state under president Hafez Al Assad.

DAMASCUS // The safeguards of real democracy are all that can protect Syria's minorities from Islamic extremism, a former regime insider has said.

Mohammad Suleman, who served for 13 years as a minister of state under the former president Hafez Al Assad, said a looming threat of sectarian violence could only be averted by a genuine shift to democracy, not by continuation of an authoritarian regime dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect.

"Democracy will give the guarantees, democracy will protect the minority communities," he said on Monday. "No one sect in Syria can or should rule over the others, no sect need be afraid of democracy."

Earlier this month Mr Suleman and 40 other former regime officials and senior Baath party figures launched a Democratic National Initiative. In it they called for an immediate halt to military operations and for representatives of street protesters to be included in a transitional coalition government.

The government would be tasked with drawing up a new constitution.

The proposals caused a stir in Syria because, rather than coming from familiar opposition figures, they were made from inside the country's elite circles, including close allies of Hafez Al Assad, father of current president, Bashar Al Assad.

However the plan was not adopted by the authorities, which this week continued a Ramadan military offensive that activists say has killed more than 250 civilians, including residents of a Palestinian refugee camp in the port city of Latakia.

In the interview, Mr Suleman repeated his call for security operations to halt and for political prisoners to be freed. He also went further, urging Mr Al Assad to begin dismantling his regime immediately, saying it was a matter of survival for Syria and its minority communities.

"The country is bigger than any one sect or party, or any regime," he said. "The security solution is not working and it will not work. The democratic solution is the only way now."

"When I talk about regime change I am not talking about any individual figures, I am talking about the system itself," he said. "The best way to change the regime is the legal way, a peaceful way and that starts with changing the constitution now, something the president personally has the authority to do."

Mr Suleman's remarks about minority rights touch on a sensitive issue in Syrian politics and a critical element in the current uprising. That he is a member of the ruling elite and an Alawite, coming from an impoverished rural Alawite family, as did Hafez al Assad, adds significant weight to his comments.

Opposition activists have been at pains to stress that the overwhelming majority of protesters are peacefully demanding rights and responsibilities, not following a narrow sectarian agenda. But they have struggled to overcome the fears minority communities have about the prospect of Sunni Muslim rule.

Largely secular in outlook and dominated by Alawites - an offshoot of Shia Islam - the Syrian authorities have long been viewed by many Christians, Druze, Alawites, Ismailis and Yezidis as a bulwark against Islamic extremism and domination by the country's Sunni majority.

Officials have specifically presented the current uprising as a militant Islamic insurgency, adding to those fears by comparing it to the Muslim Brotherhood's armed revolt of the 1980s. That was crushed with military force by Hafez al Assad, with 20,000 people estimated killed in an assault on Hama.

Mr Suleman flatly dismissed the comparison, however, saying that the uprising was overwhelmingly peaceful and, at the same time, posed a greater challenge to the country.

"In the 1980s we did not face a crisis this serious, it was not a crisis on this national scale," he said. "It was a specific party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and it was a specific ideology that was not popularly accepted. This time the opposition is the masses, the uprising is from the people.

"In the 1980s the regime could claim the support of most people, and even the international community, against the Muslim Brotherhood, but today it is different."

International condemnation of Syria's handling of the current crisis has increased this week with the continuation of military offensives. The United Nations is expected to hold a meeting on the situation by Monday.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu issued his bluntest warning to Mr Al Assad, until recently a close ally to Ankara, again saying military operations must halt. "This is our final word to the Syrian authorities, our first expectation is that these operations stop immediately and unconditionally," he said on Monday.

Those remarks and growing pressure from Russia and Saudi Arabia - like Turkey, allies for Damascus - have added to a deepening sense of alarm and isolation inside Syria

"Time is severely limited, we are no longer talking about weeks, it is a matter of days, I think we have until Saturday, Saturday is the deadline," said one influential former member of the ruling Baath party, on condition of anonymity.

"The international community, including Russia and China, are waiting to see something from Syria [by the weekend], they want to see serious reforms and we cannot keep delaying."

He said if that deadline passed without reforms, Syria would slide into a civil war that would engulf the Middle East.

Syrian officials said the army was pulling out of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor yesterday and have continued to insist that comprehensive political reforms are underway.

However, in separate interviews, two independent political analysts in Damascus with close contacts to the regime said there was no sign that far-reaching political change would take place, and certainly not quickly.

One said parliamentary elections had been penciled in for January; the other said a vote might take place as soon as October. "They do want to push though some reforms," the second analyst said of the regime. "But they do not want to go as far as real democracy. They want to introduce more democratic processes and they still want to do it ail at their own speed."

Decision-making in Syria is highly opaque, prompting much speculation about what is happening beneath the surface, particularly over the relative strength of administration hardliners compared to more reform-minded elements.

The former Baathist official dismissed suggestions that administration hawks had seized the agenda, limiting Mr Al Assad's room for manoeuvre. "The president is in control, he is in 100 per cent control and when he is convinced of the need to stop the security solution and move to a political solution, that can happen immediately. It can happen today, it would not have to wait until tomorrow," the former official said.

He stressed, however, that it remained unclear even within elite circles if Mr Al Assad would make that choice.

"We still do not know if the president will take the big decision and lead the change," the former official said. "The question is how to convince him to change course. If real life, if the situation on the ground, the internal and the external pressures don't convince him then he is not to be convinced."

 

psands@thenational.ae