US Pushing Syrian Dialogue?

Should peace in Syria be forged by revolution or dialogue?

A couple days ago, I wrote about the potential momentum shift in Syria that coincided with the opposition conference in Damascus. Assad and his army were regaining control in the north and the opposition was fragmented and could not agree on whether dialogue or revolution was the goal of the protests. The recent permission for selected international news outlets to cover the uprising had Sky News reporting that the protests, while still strong, only represented a fraction of the Syrian population. This fraction, though, is still capable of making a lot of noise, meaning that even the “good” times enjoyed by Assad are shadowed by the threat of revolution.

In addition to the potential shift in momentum, it is being reported that the United States is pressuring opposition members to support entering a national dialogue with the Assad regime as an alternative to forcing out the current government. An unpublished ‘road map’ (English or Arabic) presents a series of reforms that would ensure a transition to democracy while allowing Assad to maintain power. The suggestions in the paper begin with encouraging the state to end the current violence via conciliatory acts, such as releasing prisoners, offering a public apology and compensating families of martyrs.

The road map moves forward to suggest changes on media regulations (specifically targeting the state’s monopoly on media), on security services and the rights to public gatherings. Importantly, the document also suggests ways in which the government should begin the reforms demanded by the protest movement, while allowing Assad to remain in power. The road map calls for reform on the laws governing political parties (there is a new party law set to be passed in August, but the Ba’ath party officially is the only legal political party) and suggests the creation of a 100 member transition council, of which only 30% would be Ba’ath party members, that would make changes including the number of terms a president can serve and the duration of a presidential term. Finally, elections would need to be held within six months.

For its part, the United States is noncommittal about its support for the document, but has confirmed that it favors resolution through dialogue with the government. With no leverage to influence the Syrian government and unable to use the threat of international intervention, the United States is perhaps attempting to support a nonviolent transition to democracy while concurrently remaining on the side of the protesters while easing concerns those fearing an extremist take over.

It is unclear, however, whether this road map carries any weight. The signed authors, Louay Hussein and Maan Abdul Salam, both attended the recent opposition conference and the latter was said to have met with the Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa. Importantly, this document, though it may be taken seriously by the government (with its consideration of the new party law, for example), does not have the support of the entire protest movement. Most of the international critics (including exiled Syrians) and many domestic protesters believe that the only way forward in Syria will be without Assad. Should the government truly push for the reforms suggested in the road map, it is unclear if the entire protest movement would accept a transitional government led by the current leader.

Indeed, the protest movement calling for an end to the Assad regime had a loud week. While at least 11 people were killed in the weekly Friday protests, tens of thousands of protesters took the streets in the city of Hama (perhaps as many as 200,000) after security forces left the city and the government fired the governor (though government tanks have been deployed outside of the city).

Those protesters critical of the reforms through national dialogue idea promoted by the road map believe that the government is simply trying to delay or impede real change by pretending to contemplate reforms and offering superficial concessions.

Photo from Working Shirt

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