Swapping Notes on the Assads (II)

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A Syrian woman carries a sack of food on her head as she walks past Free Syria Army fighters patroling a street in the Old City of Aleppo 16 September 2012. (Photo: AFP - Marco Longari)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Monday, September 17, 2012

A variety of Syrian opposition groups and figures requested meetings with former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel on the sidelines of the “Arab Spring & Middle East Peace” conference held recently in Istanbul, in order to discuss a post-Assad Syria and Syrian-Lebanese relations, as well as to listen to Gemayel’s concerns about the fate of Syrian Christians.

A delegation from the Syrian National Council (SNC) was present, alongside other groups and independent figures, either based in Turkey or invited to take part in the conference in an individual or academic capacity.

At the meetings – particularly with the SNC team, led by its president, Abdul-Basset Seida – Gemayel reiterated his position that Lebanon cannot fail to be on the side of those calling for freedom and democracy, but that the Syrian parties should not attempt to draw Lebanon into the conflict by interference, allowing battles to spill over into Lebanese territory, or by stoking domestic conflicts that could destabilize the country. He told Seida that Lebanon was in a delicate situation due to its complex internal balances, which could have serious consequences if upset.

During the 90-minute meeting in his hotel suite, Gemayel expressed his willingness to provide the Syrian opposition with political, diplomatic and humanitarian support and back its demands in Arab and international forums, but without getting involved in its conflict with the regime. His comments echoed those he made at the BIEL rally in Beirut on February 14 marking the anniversary of the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri. In defiance of allies such as the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement, who are much keener on meddling in Syria, Gemayel affirmed Lebanon’s neutrality in the Syrian conflict and stressed the need to prevent it from spilling over into Lebanon while voicing support for the values the anti-regime opposition claims to espouse.

Nevertheless, much of the meeting was devoted to discussing post-Assad Syria and its future relationship with Lebanon in light of their complicated history, including Gemayel’s own term in government between 1982 and 1988. He called for the establishment of a new era in relations that takes into account Lebanon’s tribulations under the current Syrian president and his father. He was struck, however, by the impression that his interlocutors spoke of the post-Assad era as though the president were leaving office tomorrow, while he apparently does not share their optimism about his imminent exit. While Gemayel believes the regime has effectively collapsed, the downfall of Assad is a different matter.

Gemayel is well aware that the SNC does not represent all the opposition, neither inside nor outside Syria, nor does it wield decisive influence in opposition-controlled parts of the country. Still, he made a point of raising the issue of attacks by extremists on Syrian Christians and their churches, listing several such incidents. His visitors expressed their condemnation and their readiness to deal with the issue, while saying they had already taken steps to put an end to such behavior, which Gemayel reminded them was damaging the image of the Syrian opposition and its cause.

The delegation also assured Gemayel that the SNC was acting to address fears about the long-term future of Christians in Syria, without explaining what actual measures were being taken. In turn, he was urged to engage with Syrian Christians and encourage them to contribute to the process of changing the regime and ushering in a new era based on democracy and freedom.

Some confusion and inconsistencies were apparent in the positions taken by the SNC, reflecting the difficulties that have plagued it since its inception: its weakness on the ground; the fragmentation of its forces; the divergent political currents within it, which range from hardline Salafi to civic secularist; rising sectarian tensions, and the minimal influence of its Christian members. The delegation in Istanbul nevertheless told Gemayel that the SNC understands Lebanon’s special circumstances and the nature of the domestic balances which lead one group of Lebanese support the Syrian opposition and another group to oppose it.

Gemayel emerged with a number of other conclusions from the talks he held in Istanbul with Turkish officials and Syrian opposition figures, firstly, that Assad no longer holds sway over a large part of Syria’s territory, where he has lost political and military control.

Secondly, information available to Turkish officials and Syrian opposition figures indicates that the Syrian president is facing unanticipated difficulties within the army. Thousands of conscripts have reportedly been fleeing to avoid having their period of compulsory military service prolonged. As soon as that one and a half year stint ends – and it is nearly a year and a half since the crisis began – conscripts either leave the country or else join up with the FSA or other armed Salafi or religious groups for money. This is putting pressure on army numbers and its capacity to deploy and replace troops, especially in areas where it has lost control, such as Hama, Homs, Deir al-Zour, Aleppo, Deraa and Idlib.

Thirdly, it is not hard to see that the countdown to the regime’s collapse has begun. With the outbreak of the crisis, the destruction or defacing of symbols of the regime illustrated the erosion of both the regime’s authority and its repressive capacity. These have for decades, under both father and son, been its twin props, enabling it to control political life and hold on to power, and to acquire legitimacy based on its survival and longevity rather than elections or ballot boxes.

Finally, the bourgeoisie, of Damascus and Aleppo in particular, whose interests and influence were protected and strengthened by Assad, have begun abandoning him since the fighting hit the country’s two largest cities. The spread of violence to Aleppo and Damascus dealt a body-blow to the stability which underpinned the trade-off between Assad’s support for the interests of this class and its backing for his regime. With the collapse of stability, its interests have been seriously threatened, and its members left with two choices: emigrate and take their money with them, or turn their back on the regime.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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