The Syrian regime has not collapsed and is unlikely to in the foreseeable future.
Despite the urgent need for reforms, most Syrians have no stomach for regime change, Nehad Ismail explains why.
I wrote about this subject over four years ago, on 31st March 2006. Having revisited the subject and reviewed the latest developments, I am convinced nothing has changed.
There had been a plethora of headlines recently about the imminent collapse of the Syrian regime. The brutal fact, however, is that the Syrian opposition is too weak to topple the Assad regime. It is fragmented and divided. It has no coherent strategy to achieve common objectives. There is no co-ordination and no workable program unifying the fractious factions.
There exist in Syria more than 20 political parties, groupings and coalitions of all sorts each with a different program and agenda. The disunity is emphasized by the conflicting and contradictory statements emanating periodically from various factions. The opposition suffers from fundamental shortcomings. They don’t consult with each other. They don’t see eye to eye on many issues. They accuse each other of treachery and reliance on foreign money.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been accused of plotting to use the democratic process to seize power and turn the country into an Islamic caliphate state.
The common factor that unites them is opposition to the Assad regime. The problem is they don’t know how to go about it. Many of them rely on fiery statements and slogans but nothing else. With the exception of one or two groupings which have a pragmatic workable program to rescue Syria and transform it into a democracy by peaceful means, the majority lack a coherent strategy and a workable program of action. The much vaunted Damascus Declaration was so full of contradictions that many parties refused to subscribe to it.
Two figures featured prominently in recent years as opposition figures. Mr. Ali Sadruddin Bayanouni, Syrian leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam and others have set up a “National Salvation Front” in Belgium. Mr. Bayanouni insists that his movement is moderate and has no plans to turn Syria into a state governed by Sharia law convinced though that it would be successful in case of elections. He also said in recent interviews “the Islamic tide is spreading and the secular movements have failed”. Both figures lack credibility in the street and their impact is negligible.
The other groupings is the Washington based Reform Party of Syria, led by Farid Ghadry, who had been described by Syrians as “the Syrian version of Ahmed Chalabi” in reference to Mr. Chalabi an Iraqi opposition figure who played a significant part in persuading the US Administration to invade Iraq.
By far the biggest grouping and the most dynamic is the United National Alliance headed by former Assad regime strong man Rifaat Al-Assad, the former Vice President, and brother of former President Hafez Al-Assad. Rifaat left Syria in 1984, apparently because of differences with his brother Hafez Al-Assad. He now heads the United National Alliance (UNA), an umbrella organization that welcomes all opposition parties and groups that are interested in reforming Syria by non-violent means.
The UNA introduced a program for reform and salvation of Syria with a simple message and objective; that is, to transform Syria from a dictatorship into a democracy by peaceful means, through a program of gradual reforms and change. This program is gaining momentum and support in Syria and outside. Rifaat Al-Assad has launched “The National Reconciliation Initiative”. The UNA is now the only credible opposition with the means to make real change and make the regime uncomfortable.
Rifaat Assad is generally known as the first Arab leader to face Islamic extremism. He succeeded in defeating the Muslim Brotherhood. Dr. Rifaat Al-Assad was the first leader in the Arab World to face the serious threat of Islamic inspired terrorism. He bravely stood up to them and rooted them out. The decisive action against terror, helped maintain the cohesion of Syrian Society, the territorial integrity of Syria and keep the country united.
Many Syrians were indeed relieved to be rid of the violent depredations of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Rifaat’s record in acting against them may be what earned him respect in the Middle East and beyond.
Some change must occur in Syria. The regime is still refusing to heed the call for national dialogue. It continues interfering in Lebanon and meddling in Iraqi and Palestinian affairs. This behaviour has alienated neighbouring countries as well as the US and France. Internally, the repressive regime still acts as Saddam did in the years before the collapse of Baghdad exactly some seven years ago. Arbitrary arrests, abuse of human rights, torture, and corruption are rife in Syria. This regime will not be saved by its close alliances with Turkey and Iran.
The only alternative for Syria is a comprehensive national reconciliation initiative as demanded by Rifaat al-Assad, followed by a series of drastic reforms to allow the formation of political parties and free elections. Many of the provisions of the constitution are out of date and are not suitable for the 21st century. Emergency Law and martial courts need to be repealed.
New laws allowing the free formation of political parties and election are urgently needed.
The Islamic threat still exists and the Jihadists might make a move when they feel the time has come, especially if there is no reform. Unfortunately the regime is not listening and it is playing politics with the future of the Syrian people. No one in Syria would like to see a repeat of the disastrous Iraqi experience. However, the regime’s behaviour is not serving the interests of the Syrian people who deserve freedom and democracy, but without the upheaval and the violence.
The latest interesting development is the emergence of Rifaat al-Assad’s son Ribal Al-Assad as a reformer. Through his Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria (ODFS) www.odf-syria.orghe is demanding reform and respect of human rights in Syria and his message is gaining worldwide support.