Syria and the long road to democracy

Article published in August 2011

It has been five months since the Syrian uprising began. Despite harsh repression, the movement is growing, and Syrians are now organising inside and outside of the country.

According to Syrian human rights groups, nearly 2,000 civilians have been killed, over 3,000 disappeared and 12,000 arrested. The army offensive on various towns continues, despite Bashar al-Assad’s announcement that all military and police operations against protesters in Syria have stopped.

Security forces continue their assaults on the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor and in areas of the coastal city of Latakia, despite state media reports of troop withdrawals. Meanwhile, security forces in Damascus raided different neighbourhoods and arrested many activists. Nine protesters were killed and dozens injured in Homs, while security forces also opened fire in Aleppo and Hama.

For nearly a week, Latakia has suffered several casualties from the army offensive against the city. Last Sunday at least 26 people, including two Palestinians from al-Ramel refugee camp, have been killed and many others injured after Syrian warships and tanks opened fire. Three gunboats also took part in the offensive against the port city.

The offensive on Latakia began on Saturday, when tanks and armoured personnel carriers rolled into al-Ramel amid intense gunfire. Five people were reportedly killed. The refugee camp was targeted because, according to the security services, refugees were participating in protests against the regime. Palestinians in various refugee camps in Syria are joining the movement in increasing numbers. Many Palestinian families from al-Ramel fled due to shelling.

The free Palestinian youth group released a statement condemning the participation of Ahmed Jibreel, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), of being very close to the Syrian regime. They condemned his gangs alongside the Syrian army in the assault on Syrian civilians.

Last Friday, during protests called “we will not kneel except to God” at least 17 people were killed. In the first week of Ramadan, the army launched an attack on Hama, causing the death of more than 300 civilians in five days, reminding every Syrian of the massacre in 1982 when 20-40,000 people were crushed in the same city by the forces of the regime.

At the same time, the regime has announced ‘free and fair elections’ for the end of the year. Despite the attacks and the siege imposed on different cities and neighbourhoods, protesters are still demanding the overthrow of the regime.

Organising inside and out of Syria

Syrian intellectuals and other independent oppositionists, including Michel Kilo, Anouar al-Bounni and Aref Dalila, who have all suffered from repression, convened a meeting in June at the Samiramis Hotel in Damascus to discuss the crisis in the country.

Participants stressed that the conference did not constitute a dialogue with the regime, but rather an internal debate intended to ‘characterize the crisis, and consider ways to participate in its resolution’ as ‘a step towards Syrian democracy’. The conference’s closing statement expressed support for ‘the nonviolent popular intifada… for a transition to a secular, democratic, pluralistic state…’. This was the first time in many years that such a conference took place in Syria, with the knowledge and unofficial approval of the regime; moreover, it was held at the height of the protests, which challenge the regime’s legitimacy domestically and abroad.

One of the main players in the conference and a long time opponent to the regime, Anouar al-Bounni, was arrested at the beginning of August with his son, as well as many other activists throughout the country. The Syrian president of the League of Human Rights, Abdel-Karim Rihaoui, was also arrested in Damascus by security forces. The League has been very active and has been an essential source of information to the media.

The opposition outside the country organised a meeting in July, in which 450 opposition figures gathered, calling for civil disobedience throughout the country. There was unprecedented mobilisation against the regime in July, with demonstrations gathering a million people in the country. In the cities of Deir ez-Zor and Hama, more than a million protesters were chanting the people want to overthrow the regime. At the same time, protests have increasingly taken place in the two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

An end to repression, not conferences

Despite accusing the protesters of being ‘terrorists’ and ‘salafist’ groups, Assad called several national dialogues with opposition groups, who refused talks until the repression ended and demands were met. A series of conference were nevertheless organised in an attempt by the Syrian regime to create the impression that it is willing to accept oppositionist criticism.

On 3 July, a ‘National Initiative for Syria’ conference was held with the purpose of finding a ‘third path’ between the regime and the opposition, while emphasising that the process of change in Syria cannot take place without Assad. On 5 July, a consultative meeting was held under the banner of ‘Independent Parliamentarians for Syria’ in order to discuss issues of national dialogue and the reform plan. It was attended by approximately 70 current and former parliamentarians. Neither conference yielded closing statements.

On 10 July, the Syrian regime held a ‘Consultation Conference’ in preparation for a national dialogue, attended by approximately 200 politicians and intellectuals chosen by the regime and headed by Vice President Farouk al-Shar.

The popular movement and the opposition have boycotted all these conferences, claiming there is no point in dialogue with the regime, which continues to violently suppress protests. The so-called dialogue called by Bashar al-Assad cannot be taken seriously when killings and arrests continue.

At the beginning of August, 41 former government ministers and former senior Ba’ath party officials called for the regime to stop the violence and urgently implement political reforms. Their plan called for the formation of an interim government, including representatives of the regime and protesters, which would oversee the drafting of a new democratic constitution, new election laws and new political party laws. The opposition rejected the initiative because of their continued links to the regime and its proposal that Al-Assad personally oversee the transition to democracy at the head of the proposed interim government.

The regional and international scene

Canada expanded its sanctions on Syria to protest against the government’s brutal crackdown on demonstrations. The US also imposed sanctions and has joined European allies in sanctioning top officials close to Bashar al-Assad. The US, Saudi Arabia and the UK jointly called for an immediate end to the Syrian government’s crackdown on protests.

Several Gulf countries have withdrawn their ambassadors, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to protest against the violent crackdown on protesters and demand implementation of reforms. These authoritarian regimes have no real interest in democracy in Syria and their call for reforms cannot be taken seriously when a few months ago these same countries, especially Saudi Arabia, intervened in Bahrain to prevent a revolution against the Bahraini regime. They repressed protesters in collaboration with the Bahraini regime.

The Gulf countries, led by the Saudi regime, only want to strengthen the position of Islamist political forces in Syria and break Syria’s relationship with Iran. Saudi Arabia and others do not care about the demands of protesters in Syria, provided they obtains a better relationship with the Assad regime. Gulf countries would not like to see a democratic example on their borders, because this would threat their own regimes.

Protesters and some among the opposition, except the Muslim Brotherhoods, have increasingly criticised the role of the Turkish government in the Syrian uprising, despite calls made to the Syrian government to stop its bloody crackdown and take steps to begin a process of reform. First, they were criticised for being complicit in confirming the withdrawal of tanks from Hama when the city was still under siege. Second, increasing numbers of protesters have accused the Turkish government of favoring one section of the Syrian opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, against the rest. In the refugee camps in the south of Turkey close to the Syrian border, for example, people from secular and leftist backgrounds elected by Syrian refugees to represent them were arrested and replaced by Islamists.

Turkey was never interested in the demands of Syrian protesters, as the close relationship with the Assad regime prior the uprising all these years showed. Rather it wants to protect its political and economic interests in Syria.

No foreign intervention

Attempts to divide the popular movements from the regime or so-called ‘solidarity’ from authoritarian and imperialist regimes will not be successful. The Syrian popular movement refuses foreign military intervention, in the knowledge that this would be dangerous to the country and the movement.

The violence of the regime is actually making foreign intervention more likely, despite the opposition to this. Foreign intervention would be a disaster, but as the local committee of the occupied Golan Heights rightly declared, the Golan, as well as Palestine, will not be free until Latakia, Homs, Hama, Deir ez-Zor, Damascus and the whole Syria is free from the traitor Assad.

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