Syria’s President Bashar Assad has no interest in carrying out reforms to end his family’s 40-year dictatorship and is seeking to portray the popular uprising as a foreign conspiracy, U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (right) said today.
According to a diplomat inside a closed-door briefing to the U.N. Security Council, the envoy described a rapidly deteriorating country with routine torture, looming food shortages and damaged schools. The diplomat said Brahimi believes that Assad’s goal is to return his country to “the old Syria.”
His comments came as government-tolerated opposition groups in the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change called for an end to the “barbaric bombing” at a meeting in Damascus in the presence of the ambassadors of Russia and Iran, staunch Assad allies.
“Reporting about violence in the Middle East often focuses on Islamic extremists, and this is increasingly true for much of the coverage of Syria’s uprising,” a leading analyst writes. “But in the Syrian political opposition, Islamic extremism is truly the exception that proves the rule.”
A new survey of more than 1,000 Syrian opposition activists reveals that the vast majority support key democratic values and are relatively moderate on Islamic issues.
The research, commissioned by the International Republican Institute,* “offers support for the view that mainstream Syrian opposition fighters merit the increased aid that would enable them to defend themselves, defeat Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship and restrain any extremists infiltrating their movement,” says David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an adviser to Pechter Polls:
Asked if the opposition leadership “should support the rights and freedoms of minorities,” the average response score was 6.36 out of 7, indicating very strong and widespread agreement. …. And equal rights even for “non-believers” were accorded the highest possible agreement score by 64 percent of opposition activists, whether inside or outside Syria. Fifty-nine percent, inside and outside the country, said they would vote for a qualified Alawite candidate — one from the Assad regime’s most favored and most loyal sect — in a free election, an impressive share given the bloodletting and sectarian polarization in Syria since the uprising began in March 2011.
Similarly, 80 percent gave at least mild support, with an average score of 5.2 out of 7, to this proposition: “Government processes, school curricula, and the constitution should mention religion respectfully, but otherwise be secular and not give priority to any specific religious viewpoint over another.” This does not, however, imply the prevalence of pure secularism; in fact, just one-third of respondents said they would support a constitution with no mention of religion at all.
On broader democratic values, there was virtual unanimity (with an average score of 6.8 out of 7) on the idea that “the president should have to obey the laws like everyone else.” And 84 percent, both inside and outside Syria, gave a score of 7 to this resounding democratic declaration: “The government majority in parliament needs to respect the right of the opposition minority to criticize vigorously and without fear whatever the government does.”
“Most of the opposition is Sunni Muslims and they are democratically minded, but they want a government based on some kind of Islamic law or that follows Islamic guidelines,” says Elizabeth O’Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who says the findings confirm her own research:
“People here are religious, and, yes, we have a secular constitution and government,” she says. “But a lot of decisions that are made are based on religious beliefs.” ….O’Bagy estimates that Salafi Jihadis number from 800 to 1,000 among up to 60,000 armed fighters. The majority of the fighters are what she calls religious nationalists “fighting for democracy and nationalist principles but (for whom) religion plays a large role,” she says. Islamists akin to the Muslim Brotherhood, who want to achieve a religious state through democratic means, represent 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, “a significant portion of the opposition but still not a majority,” she says.
“More extremist elements are beginning to gain increasing popular support,” O’Bagy says. “The situation is getting so desperate. They may gain a foothold in the Syrian opposition to influence the outcome, or at the very least threaten the future stability of a post-Assad future.”
The IRI survey demonstrates a strong degree of consensus on foreign models of democratic governance amongst opposition activists:
Three-quarters gave the United States and France positive ratings….. Among other predominantly Muslim countries, the Islamist states Saudi Arabia and Egypt each received a favorable score on this question from just one-quarter of the Syrian opposition overall. Democratic Turkey rated three times as high, in league with Western models — but 45 percent of those surveyed also said Turkey had too much influence over the Syrian National Council, which is based in that country.
Concern about Ankara’s influence is a factor in prompting the decision of the Free Syrian Army, the main umbrella group for rebel fighters, to move their headquarters from Turkey to “liberated areas” within Syria. But the switch may create as many problems as it solves, some observers contend.
“The problem is that it gives the Syrian Air Force a target,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria analyst at the University of Oklahoma. “We have to see whether this is a credible headquarters or just a mobile camp that gives them a P.O. box in Syria.”
Though parts of Syria are outside government control, the air force bombs at will. That could restrict the F.S.A. leaders’ movements in northern Syria, whether to funnel arms or to enforce unified goals and standards. ….Analysts said that Syria had long been home to the real commanders — low-level leaders making daily decisions for their decentralized units — and that the clout of the F.S.A. exile leadership might already be waning.
“The purported F.S.A. leaders in Turkey have never exercised anything like full command and control over the rebellion,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst at The Century Foundation. “They have seen their role diminish as the center of gravity continues to shift to leaders and fighters inside Syria.”
The IRI survey shows that Syrian activists are acutely aware of foreign powers’ varying “treatment of the Syrian opposition.”
France, Qatar, Turkey, Libya and Britain receive the highest ratings (averaging 5.3-5.5 out of 7); the U.S. got 4.9, followed by Saudi Arabia (4.7) and Egypt (4.2). It’s no surprise that Assad’s allies – Iraq, China, Russia and Iran – score 1.5 or less.
“All in all, the data show that most Syrian opposition activists are far from being Islamic fanatics or extremists,” Pollock concludes:
They solidly support religious tolerance, legal equality, freedom of expression and a constitution that mentions religion respectfully but is otherwise secular. They look to Western or moderately Islamist Turkish political models, while rejecting those of Saudi Arabia and especially Iran. And they want Western help, while not requesting any boots on the ground. The argument that providing this help might result in trading Assad’s hostile secular dictatorship for a hostile Islamic one does not square with these facts.
Despite the largely pro-democratic sentiments of the opposition activists, the funding and arming of Islamist groups gives them a disproportionate influence that could jeopardize prospects for a post-Assad democratic transition, analysts argue.
That’s a compelling reason for the U.S. to deliver “a much larger engagement to compete with this extremist power that is coming about as the situation becomes more desperate,” says O’Bagy.
The U.S. State Department agrees that extremists present a threat.
“That’s why our principal focus has been to encourage the opposition to come up with a transition plan,” says Edgar Vasquez, a spokesman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. “That’s something those elements within Syria are working on within Syria — with a cross section of Kurds, Sunnis and Alawites — to agree on a plan to lay the way forward. There’s no question that (Assad) will be gone.”
[He] says the rebels don’t need more guns. Instead, the State Department is focused on helping unarmed elements in the opposition develop a plan for how to rule once Assad is gone…..Syrian rebels, led by the Free Syrian Army, have liberated large portions of the country’s north, they’ve seized checkpoints on the border with Turkey and Iraq, and they have turned the tide on the Assad regime with the weapons they already have, Vasquez says.
“The opposition has done pretty well for themselves in the past few months,” he says. “They’ve fought (regime forces) to a stalemate in Aleppo, and in Damascus, the opposition has been able to bring the fight to Assad’s doorstep.”
“Thirty years ago Hafez al-Assad cut phone lines from Hama to stop word spreading of his bloody crackdown on an uprising in the city, ensuring that the 1982 Syrian revolt was crushed and many thousands killed before the world even knew of it. Three decades on, his son Bashar too can rely on Cold War-era divisions among major powers, and a growing sense of impotence and indifference, to shield him from armed foreign intervention,” Reuters reports:
Instead of stirring ever greater outrage, the remorseless violence seems instead to have numbed an outside world which has no answers to Syria’s nightmare, giving Assad free rein to ratchet up the firepower against opponents who began protesting in the streets and are now fighting an ill-matched civil war.
“There is a dwindling public engagement with the issue outside Syria and that reflects the grinding relentlessness of the conflict,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s not mobilizing Western populations to push governments to take action.”
U.S. President Obama’s “red line” to trigger a military response – the deployment of chemical weapons – may have been counter-productive.
“They have effectively said: ‘We won’t intervene unless you use chemical weapons’,” Barnes-Dacey said. “Assad has felt liberated to use more violence. There has been a surge in government brutality and government-led violence and that hasn’t provoked any reaction.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition body which collates reports of violence, estimates more than 27,000 Syrians have died since March last year and, on a typical day last week said 250 people were killed on Thursday. That included at least 30 in an air strike on a fuel station. Forty-six soldiers were killed by rebel attacks and in clashes, it said.
But Western democracies’ fear of empowering radical Islamists could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, some observers believe.
“Doing nothing at this point is the worst thing,” said Andrew Tabler, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “It will ensure our worst nightmare comes true.”
He said that U.S. reluctance to engage with rebel fighters as the uprising was taking on military form several months ago now left Washington without leverage over the armed groups – and unable to prevent weapons flowing to hardline Islamist elements. That could increase a risk, he said, that Syria might be transformed from a state controlled by allies of U.S. enemy Iran to one run by equally anti-Western Islamists – albeit only after further, prolonged fighting.
“The regime is not going to go down easily, and we are staring into the abyss,” Tabler said. “It’s going to be a very bloody winter.”
* IRI is one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.