Post-Referendum Syria: Searching for a Political Solution

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A damaged tank is seen in the Bab Sabaa neighborhood of Homs in this handout picture taken by Syrian National Council (SNC) member Moulhem Al-Jundi 19 February 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Moulhem Al-Jundi - Handout)

By: Antoun Issa

Published Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Damascus - Syria’s new constitution was heralded by Minister of Interior Mohammad al-Shaar on Monday as “excellent” and indicative of the Syrian people’s will to “achieve their aims.” But the poll’s results showed that almost half of Syria’s eligible voting population either boycotted or rejected the draft. Only 51 percent of 14.6 million eligible voters were in favor of the new constitution, highlighting a deep split among Syrians that remains unresolved.

“The regime prepared a draft constitution with its own and only supporters, without asking or consulting any political group in the country,” Abdulaziz al-Khayyer, a senior figure with the Syrian-based National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB), said.

The NCB, along with their Istanbul-based opposition rivals the Syrian National Council (SNC), called on Syrians to boycott the referendum in protest of the ongoing violence. “The voting took place in a country where there’s almost a civil war going on, how could it be free and transparent? This is impossible,” al-Khayyer queried.

Exact figures of participation in the restive areas of Homs and Idlib were not disclosed by the government, despite repeated requests. Al-Shaar stated at his press conference that armed groups had prevented people from voting in parts of Homs province, but that the turnout in both Homs and Idlib was “acceptable for us.”

The push for dialogue

While the NCB and SNC agreed on the boycott of the constitution, they diverge completely on the approach to resolve a crisis that the UN says has killed at least 5,400 people. The SNC has repeatedly refused dialogue with the regime until President Bashar Assad is removed.

Al-Khayyer, however, insists that “there must be negotiations, within and among all the Syrian political parties and powers.”

The non-aligned faction of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party – the other faction being in an official alliance with the ruling Baath Party – agrees on the need for a political solution led by Syrians.

“We want a dialogue among all parties in Syria, including the SSNP and the regime,” SSNP leader Ali Haidar said. The SSNP made a point not to boycott the referendum, despite objecting to parts of it. Instead, it issued a mandatory decree to its members, which it estimates to run in the tens of thousands, to vote “no.”

“Some of the groups refusing this constitution base their stance on the principle that they don’t want a constitution in which they didn’t participate in drafting. And we agree on this,” Haidar said.

“The message we’re trying to say is we will refuse the constitution because we didn’t take part in drafting it, but we will go and say ‘no’ because we want to emphasize the solution is a political one.”

Haidar warns that the only alternative to a political solution is continued violence, and that Syrians have no choice but to talk. But al-Khayyer says the onus is on the regime.

“The main power that is refusing dialogue is the regime. It keeps talking about dialogue, national dialogue, but as a matter of fact it does nothing to create a climate for dialogue,” al-Khayyer said.

The SSNP took part in a national dialogue in July last year that brought the regime and opposition groups to the negotiating table, but withdrew after the first meeting, blaming both the regime and the opposition for the failure in talks and for refusing to negotiate.

But that is no reason to stop trying, according to both the SSNP and NCB, who are facing mounting pressure to end the violence, restore stability in the country, and push for reform all at the same time.

Connecting the street to the opposition

One point remarked upon by both groups was the glaring disconnect between the organic protests and the political opposition both within Syria and abroad. If dialogue with the regime is to advance, the voices of those on the ground need to be represented.

“It’s true that most of the movement in the streets [are] still self-dependent. Organized opposition is still trying to have more real and deep connections [with the protests],” al-Khayyer conceded.

As a result, the pulling power of both the NCB and SNC is brought into question, considering both are struggling to connect their political decisions with the grassroots protests on the ground.

Al-Khayyer points to the political inexperience of Syrians as hampering opposition groups and protesters from converting their demands into concrete political action that can confront Assad.

“Syrians are not that skillful in politics, because they’ve been living under [a] very harsh dictatorship for 40 years. We have no political background, no political culture, and no political training. The Syrian people are learning that while they’re fighting in the street,” he said.

The SSNP head also stated that any political process or Syrian-led solution will take time, but that it is the only path Syria can take to prevent a civil war.

“Any political process started by the regime and the opposition would naturally be rejected by the street due to the violence. But once the process starts paying off, the street will have trust in it. This won’t take days and weeks, but months and longer,” Haidar said.

Haidar said certain steps could speed up trust between the regime, opposition, and protesters. These include the release of all political prisoners and the withdrawal of armed forces from the streets.
The referendum and new political reforms, albeit dismissed by most opposition groups, at least opens the door, even slightly, for political activity that was previously non-existent.

Local opposition activists recently registered a new party under Syria’s multi-party reforms, calling themselves the National Development Party. The group has launched a Facebook page, holds regular meetings, and remains committed to assisting anti-regime protesters to reach their aim of changing Syria’s leadership.

“We always have meetings. But a lot of our activity is still secret,” one member said, wishing to remain anonymous. Converting a completely totalitarian state that suffocated political thought out of Syrians for four decades into an open society is no easy feat. The reforms have so far granted some space for opposition to the regime, but activists fear their work could be snuffed out at any moment.

The young activists of the National Development Party, many of whom are networked to the grassroots anti-regime protests and dedicated to amplifying the voices of the street, have vowed to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections.

“We’re going to try and take part, of course,” the member said. The activists from the new group share the core demands of protesters, but have opted for political, legal and peaceful means in order to achieve their goals. This is Syria’s new political culture in the making, a far cry from the exiled opposition pushing for an armed struggle that will undoubtedly plunge the country into a devastating civil war.

Circumventing foreign interests

One unanimous point among regime supporters and local opposition groups is that Syria’s crisis is regrettably becoming the stage for a regional and global power struggle.

The West and its Arab allies are becoming increasingly active in their support for the SNC and armed rebels along the Turkish and Lebanese borders. But they are facing heated resistance from Russia, China, and Iran, all three determined to thwart Western interests in Syria.

To Imad Fawaz Shueibi, President of the Data and Strategic Studies Centre in Damascus and sympathetic to the regime, Syria has become a pivotal battleground for world powers, with serious implications for international relations.

“The solution will not be just for Syria, but for the international world order. Syria is one of the main factors that will determine what will be [in world politics],” he said.

The SSNP’s Haidar recognizes this point, adding that global tension between a declining US power and an ascendant China and Russia has come to a nexus in Syria.

“Today the crisis in Syria has turned into an international struggle over Syria, between the US/European axis and the Russian-Chinese axis. This is a concentration of what’s happening globally,” he said.

“One of these two axes, the US/European axis, does not want a peaceful resolution the crisis. Their main target is to breakup Syria into different entities. And the second axis does not want any solution that includes any American or European influence in the country.”

Shueibi highlights the “strategic rainbow” that “for the first time in more than a century” has connected Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The academic says the “strategic space” is independent of US interests, and a “taboo” that the West, along with its Gulf Arab allies, is seeking to rectify.

“If you want to cut this strategic rainbow, you ought to cut it in Syria because it’s the heart,” he said.

Saudi Arabia openly backed the arming of rebels at the recent “Friends of Syria” talks in Tunis, while Washington is still entertaining the idea, fuelling fears that Western powers are seeking only to weaken Syria.

Mistrust of Western powers and the Gulf Arab states is rife among loyalists and opposition alike. Al-Khayyer notes America’s primary interest in the region, and thus its main determinant in its policy in Syria – protecting Israel.

The NCB figure dismissed claims that Israel prefers Assad to remain in power in order to keep the Syrian-Israeli border quiet, adding weight to the argument that the US will try to push Syria into a civil war.

“The game now is much larger than the Golan Heights, it’s about all of Syria, and maybe the whole region. Syria is very important for the region, and for the world,” Al-Khayyer said.

Foreign attempts to arm groups in Syria will ultimately destroy the country, and bring no rewards to the Syrian people, Al-Khayyer said, while stressing his group’s staunch opposition to an armed revolution.

“This [civil war] will make the whole country weaker, the Syrian people will be weaker, the Syrian state will be weaker, the Syrian army will be weaker, and this is in the best interests of Israel,” he said.

But Al-Khayyer insists the regime’s policies are not helping to resolve the situation, and are only aiding foreign attempts to sow discord in the country. “The regime is refusing to have a Syrian-Syrian solution, or a pan-Arab solution. Of course, the regional and global powers will have a better chance, as a result of such policy, to interfere,” he said.

Shueibi says, however, that while a solution must include all Syrians, the armed rebellion must cease against the government. “No solution without Syrians, and no solution without stopping the support of the rebels and gunmen,” he said.

The young opposition activists of the National Development Party also reject attempts to turn Syria into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia on a regional level, and Russia-China and the West on a global level.

“We want a Syria that is democratic, but for Syrians. We’re not interested in the interests of other countries,” the member said.

A Syria for the Syrians – it is at least one point that the vast majority in the country, regime, and opposition, Sunni and Alawi, can agree on, if the aforementioned groups are any indication.

While external parties push for civil war in Syria, many internal forces including old opposition, new opposition, and some regime loyalists see hope in a peaceful resolution, one that will guarantee the sovereignty of Syria.

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