People in Damascus prefer Bashar al-Assad and his Government because they want stability. The idea of Islamists seizing power scares them.
At the end of a five-day visit to Syria, the dominant impression is of latent yet explosive tension under the outwardly calm spring days. The semblance of normalcy in Damascus, a city of almost six million, or 25 per cent of Syria’s population, is surreal. We saw hordes of families picnicking in the green meadows which surround the city, enjoying the onset of spring and children going to schools and universities. Yet, when you scratch the surface, the tension on their faces and in their words, is palpable. It is the uncertainty that breeds that fear.
Tourism is virtually non-existent, there is hardly any industrial activity taking place, agriculture has been affected in the fertile regions around Homs and Hama, there is a fear of shortages of necessities and foreign exchange reserves are down to four billion dollars to six billion dollars. Despite this grim economic outlook, the restaurants and shops are full and the Damascene go about the normal business of life, having inured themselves to the strife in rest of the country and the threat of imminent collapse. After 15 months of mainly externally inspired and funded protests, an uneasy stalemate can be seen at different levels: Domestic, popular, regional and international.
In the UN Security Council, thanks to the Russians and the Chinese, the best that could be done was the Annan Plan. No one wants it to succeed and many would like to use it for sanctioning a Libya-type action next. For the same reason the Syrian regime, and possibly the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan himself, have no alternative but to see that it does.
The Annan Plan, whose implementation protocol was finalised when we were in Damascus, has just been given more teeth with the Syrian agreement to receive 300 observers, eight of whom are already in the country. Their early forays to Homs and Hama to review the situation became more a catalyst for violence than for peace. The mission’s agenda is not entirely clear: On whose terms are they working? Will an objective and non-partisan report find favour or be dumped like that of the earlier Arab League Observer mission? The presence of the UN Observers in different crisis locations within the country, rather than preventing further violence, will only solidify sectarian lines, making the situation hugely intractable. The case of UN Observers placed in mixed villages in Cyprus in the 1960s come to mind.
Meanwhile, the stalemate continues between the regime and the fractious Opposition groups, all of whom are based abroad, except the Local Coordination Committees in various cities. None of them has any following or credibility in the country, and so they have not yet registered their candidates for the National Assembly election on May 7. With likely inflow of funds, weapons and equipment after the ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting in Istanbul, a countrywide bloody civil war looms ominously.
The Syrian Government claims it has met its obligations in the Annan Plan. It has withdrawn heavy artillery and troops from populated areas in Homs, Hama and Idleb, and is ready for the ‘national dialogue’. But whom are they to talk to? People like Burhan Galioun, a French national, who leads the largest Opposition group, reminds one of US attempts to parachute Adnan Chalabi on the Iraqi people. There is no meeting of minds within the Opposition groups, with each of them jockeying for primacy. Even their sponsors like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are unsure of their reliability and staying power.
Although the primacy of the B’aath Party has been removed in the new Constitution, they remain united with three and a half million members across the country. The Assembly Election can only be the tentative first step towards political resurgence in the country. With just two weeks remaining for the forthcoming Assembly election, one does not see much enthusiasm. Nine new political parties have been registered, with about 1200 candidates for the 250 seats in Parliament. It is going to take many years before the new political formations become a real challenge.
Similarly, the Syrian Army remains united with minimal desertions. Although its commitment to the ruling regime is exceedingly partisan and unbecoming of a national institution, paradoxically, the people in Damascus still look to them to provide security on the streets and the maintenance of peace.
Once again, 15 months of protest have led to an ambiguous assessment among the populace that the known devil is better than the unknown. The ongoing tensions between the Islamists and the new pretenders in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, with growing assertion of their power by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, has brought a realisation of what is in store. Some feel that the price to be paid for transition will be too high in terms of the peace and security of their families. The common refrain is: “We don’t want to become the next Libya.” It is a debate being played out in the minds of the Syrians as to the kind of a country they want. With raging conflict in other cities, the division of opinion over the regime has even permeated amongst the generally apolitical student community in schools and universities.
It would be too facile to say that all Syrians, regardless of their religious persuasion, would like the secular ethos to continue. Almost 70 per cent of the population is Sunni, with the minorities including the ruling Alawites making up the rest.There is growing presence of Al Qaeda and armed Salafist elements in the country, and an estimated 20 per cent would support the Muslim Brotherhood, making them the single largest Opposition group in the country.
At the same time, it would not be inaccurate to say that the Syrians as a whole would be averse to see these elements getting power. There is a conviction that a regime change would be unending with an uncertain outcome. It would be neither smooth nor violence-free, and would bring these Islamist groups to power. This is anathema even to those opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. Above all, at the popular level the craving for stability and security seems to have won over the desire for change. For the present, at least. And the Government knows that.
For minorities like the Alawites, the Shias, the Christians, the Druze and the Kurds the situation has become even more fraught. Traditionally allied to the regime, they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. For them it is, quite simply put, now a matter of life and death. The increased targeting of these communities in Homs is a sign of the likely outcome if a non-secular regime comes to power. This was the sentiment which came out from our meetings with the Heads of the Syrian Christian and the Druze communities.
Syria, at the present juncture in its life, is acutely conscious of the dwindling number of its friends abroad — amongst whom it still counts India, even though we have incomprehensively changed horses mid-stream. Some of our interlocutors recalled the recent visit of President Pratibha Patil and the projected one of an important Minister. While we were hard put to rationally explain this change, we were somewhat enthused when they told us that they would still accept UN Observers from India.
The author is Chairman of the Kunzru Center for Defence Studies and Research, in Pune. He was India’s Ambassador to Syria from 1992 to 1996.