Pro-democracy voices are being marginalized as the Syrian uprising turns increasingly violent, observers warned today, while a leading analyst advises the fractured opposition to focus on inclusion, a shared vision, and better communications with Syrians inside and outside the country.
As a roadside bomb killed 10 soldiers and security forces opened fire on thousands of protesters emerging from mosques after noon prayers, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a new U.N. resolution that would legitimize military action.
“We need to start moving very vigorously in the Security Council for a Chapter 7 sanctions resolution, including travel, financial sanctions, an arms embargo, and the pressure that that will give us on the regime to push for compliance with Kofi Annan’s six-point plan,” she told a Paris conference on the conflict.
Syrian opposition groups welcomed the prospect of tougher international engagement.
“The fact that Mrs. Clinton talked about this resolution (Chapter 7) shows that the international community is preparing to take stronger action against this cruel regime,” said Fawaz Zakri, an Istanbul-based member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition umbrella group.
But the militarization of the conflict “has strengthened the most radical elements on both sides of the bloody, 13-month-old conflict, sidelining the moderate voices that many see as the best hope for Syria’s future,” writes Bassem Mroue:
Members of the Syrian opposition want nothing less than the removal of the Baath party regime, while the government appears determined to crush the uprising no matter how many Syrians lose their lives. This could make it even more difficult for the already faltering peace plan of international Arab envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for a dialogue over Syria’s future.
The failure of the cease-fire and Kofi Annan’s peace plan will put pressure on Russia to allow further measures against Damascus, said Marina Ottaway, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I don’t think we are going to get Russia or China to agree to foreign intervention, but I think the present situation is going to make it very difficult for Russia to continue saying we have to try diplomacy, because the regime has shown once again that it has no intention of moving,” she said.
Vladimir Putin may be tempted to pressure Assad in order to boost Russia’s international reputation at the expense of the U.S., said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
The regime’s violent reaction to peaceful protest has played into the hands of more militant elements which is why the international community must pressure Bashar al-Assad to open up political space, analysts suggest.
“This suppression of dissent in centers of resistance has obviously constrained the people’s right to freedom of peaceful expression and assembly, says Andrew J. Tabler, the Next Generation fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“As a result, Syrians are afraid to express their demands as part of the ‘Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, pluralist system’ and have demonstrated in lesser numbers than expected,” he notes. “. Even if a viable ceasefire can eventually be brokered, protests and other forms of civil resistance will be the key means to judge what the people want going forward.”
The increasingly violent dynamic of the struggle is preventing the emergence and articulation of innovative, moderate voices.
“Activists who have wider visions, open minds and represent the revolution’s democratic and liberal ambitions were subjected to killing, detention and extreme torture,” said Yassin Haj Saleh (right) a left-wing activist who was jailed in Syria from 1980-1996. Moderates have been forced to “hide or emigrate”:
What is most needed, he says, is fresh thinking about a dynamic, grass-roots upheaval that emerged with a vitality that shocked him and other longtime dissidents, both in Syria and outside. Too many Syrian intellectuals, he said, are still shackled to Arab nationalism and other Cold War-era ideas and political ideologies.
“It’s not a matter about living abroad and inside,” said Saleh. “It’s a matter of traditional mentality that cannot deal with new facts and new generations and a new sense of life.”
“In the first few months,” Saleh acknowledged, “it was easier to have a clear vision.” “After 11 months of killing, there is kind of a political refuge being taken to God and to religion.”
“The few voices of compromise on the regime side also appear to be disappearing,” Mroue observes:
Earlier this month, former Information Minister Mohammed Salman, along with several Baath party officials and intellectuals said they will stop their National Democratic Initiative that they launched last year with the aim of transforming Syria into a democratic, pluralist and civil state, though under Assad’s rule, an idea even many moderates in the opposition consider impossible.
“With Iran resolutely supplying the regime, and with Gulf states already providing cash for salaries to the Free Syrian Army’s soldiers and talking about lethal aid, the militarization of the Syrian uprising is proceeding apace,” says the Brookings Institution’s Tamara Cofman Wittes.
“But while an armed opposition might be able to fight an effective insurgent campaign, it’s not at all clear that they would be able to bring down the regime,” she said. “At worst, uncontrolled militarization will turn the Syrian uprising into a wider conflict that could draw in jihadis and other extremists from across the Muslim World, offer up tempting ungoverned spaces to terrorists and organized criminals, and produce refugees and other ripple effects that could destabilize Iraq, Lebanon, and possibly other neighbors,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week:
But this possibility must not deter clear thinking: the United States cannot halt or reverse the militarization of the Syrian uprising, and should not try. What the United States can usefully do is manage this militarization by working with other governments, especially Syria’s neighbors in the region, to try to shape the activities of armed elements on the ground in a manner that will most effectively increase pressure on the regime – to drain the Syrian military’s ability and will to fight, to help induce a political transition, and thereby to bring an end to the violence as quickly as possible…..
It’s absolutely crucial that the United States and other governments continue to scale up their support for the political development of the Syrian opposition. The opposition activists most urgently need to improve their internal cohesion and their ability to effectively and authoritatively represent the Syrian people in any political process – without this, it is hard to see how a political transition can lead to a better or more stable future for Syria. The factionalism and mutual mistrust evident amongst the Syrian opposition activists are unsurprising outgrowths of the severe repression and political stagnation of the Syrian context. This legacy can be overcome, but not by fiat, not through exhortations, and not overnight. To become a more effective and unified force, the Syrian opposition activists need to focus on three key goals: inclusion, a shared vision for the future, and consistent communication with Syrians both inside and outside the country. Some in the opposition may wonder what the utility is of planning for a post-Assad Syria, when Syrians are under assault today. In fact, developing and marketing a vision for post-Assad Syria that demonstrates organization and a commitment to inclusion and democratic accountability is perhaps the key means through which the activists can overcome their existing differences, mobilize wider support, and represent something beyond factions and personalities. The international community, including the United States, must invest strongly in helping opposition activists – inside and outside Syria – communicate and plan jointly for the future.