It has been reported that some regime elements are in favour of negotiating with the opposition. They “complain” that there are no visible or credible opposition leaders with whom they can negotiate; hence the only option is a crackdown to restore peace and order and a continuation of the status quo.
Where have we heard this fine line of argument before? Could it be the Israelis who, for 40 years, have ensured that no organised and effective Palestinian opposition could ever grow and develop?
The Turkish President Abdullah Gul says “we hope that a multiparty democratic order will be established in Syria that reflects the will of the people”. Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan, has been working tirelessly behind the scenes for a number of years to persuade the regime to save itself from an ugly end by peacefully relinquishing its monopoly over power and putting an end to corruption and cronyism at the highest levels, but to no avail. Our Turkish neighbours may have their own long-term economic and political agendas but, unlike fundamentalist Iran, they do want to play a positive and stabilising regional role and support genuine progress next door.
In the last four decades, Syria has been transformed from a fairly efficient, somewhat-idealistic and semi-corrupt one-party state into a feudal principality with extreme concentration of power and wealth and dysfunctional administrative, legal and social institutions. In other words, while other nations have embraced universal values and enlightened development paths Syria has generally gone backwards for 40 years. Ordinary Syrians have survived on state handouts and remittances from relatives living abroad. Any perceptible improvement in their lives has been achieved by them through sweat and blood. This was never going to be sustainable. The regime has survived for so long because it has successfully driven out the urban middle class, co-opted the merchant class and minority religious leaders, fed its sophisticated security apparatus with oil money and kept its rival tribes at bay by awarding them smuggling and other economic licenses.
The Assad clan knew they could not continue to feed the system for ever with oil revenues dwindling and youth unemployment exploding. They have used the Iran card to ward off potential American-Israeli military adventures and blackmail Gulf Arabs. They have used the starry-eyed, London-educated Bashar Assad and his London-born wife as a façade to convince Islamophobic European governments with deep pockets and doubting capitalist investors of their good intentions and modernising instincts. This strategy had, until 8 weeks ago, worked reasonably well and effectively bought them a further 10-year lease of life.
Where do they go from here?
It is difficult to see how a feudal system, complete with war lords like Maher Assad can reform itself peacefully and gracefully. Many oppressed and impoverished Syrians had put up with the system in the hope of better times. Some intellectuals and those who stand to benefit most from genuine political and economic reforms have, until perhaps very recently, been prepared to give the regime the benefit of the doubt. Those in the regime who genuinely want to start a slow and peaceful transition to a (possibly corrupt and fractious) multi-party system may win the argument when the uprising reaches a tipping point and they are faced with the prospect of flight or total annihilation. Unfortunately for them, the dynamics will not change without more blood being shed and their superficial reforms will be dismissed as being too little late and too late. Many humiliated and oppressed Syrians, especially those with murdered relatives, will want their blood and a complete cleansing of the system.
One possible, but as-yet unrealistic and in the long-term undesirable scenario (because it comes with a price tag) is a military coup that eventually leads to better overall democratic outcome than anything modernising elements in the regime can do. Such a coup cannot succeed without some Western and Turkish backing to counter Iranian support of the regime.
The best possible outcome is for patriotic army officers to turn their guns on mountain goats (tuyus jabalieh) like Maher Assad and others like him who are holding the country to ransom and are quite prepared to bring temple down onto all our heads.