Assad's scorched-earth policy precludes real negotiations
On January 19, the Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Moallem gave an apparently conciliatory interview to state TV. "I tell the young men who carried arms to change and reform, take part in the dialogue for a new Syria and you will be a partner in building it. Why carry arms?" In the southern and eastern suburbs of Damascus, his voice was drowned out by the continuing roar of the regime's rocket, artillery and air strikes.
The UN and parts of the media have also called for negotiations. Until late last month, however, the Syria's National Coalition - the widely recognised opposition umbrella group - opposed the notion absolutely. But then NC leader Moaz Al Khatib announced that he would talk directly to regime representatives (not President Bashar Al Assad himself) on condition that the regime released 160,000 detainees and renew the expired passports of exiled Syrians.
In the context of Mr Al Moallem's media offensive (and in the absence of concerted international financial or military support for either the NC or the revolutionary militias) Mr Al Khatib's announcement calls the regime's bluff. It doesn't, of course, mean that negotiations are about to be launched. For a start, the regime only intends to negotiate with, as it puts it, those "who have not betrayed Syria". Like successive Israeli regimes, it will only talk with the "opponents" it chooses to recognise. As well as pro-regime people posing as oppositionists, this includes Haytham Manaa's National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, a group that has no influence whatsoever on the revolutionary fighters setting the agenda. The NC - which does have some influence on the ground, and would have far more if it were sufficiently funded - is definitely not invited.
And negotiations won't happen, secondly, because the regime won't release the detainees, at least not yet. If it did release all 160,000, it would indeed be a sign that it had understood that it could no longer torture, imprison and kill Syrians. It would be a reasonable starting point for negotiating the transition.
Why has the NC been so reluctant to negotiate thus far? First there is the obvious moral point, that a regime loses its legitimacy when it prosecutes war against its own people. As a criminal regime, it forfeits its right to engage in national dialogue.
The point is correct, but in the face of such vast tragedy the moral point is not sufficient. It may be a stubborn and ultimately irresponsible idealism that clings to moral principle while a land, a people and their future are burning. A much more intelligent motive for opposing negotiations is hard-nosed realism.
In April 2011, a presidential decree lifted Syria's Emergency Law, dissolved the notorious State Security Courts, and legalised peaceful protests. The next day, "Great Friday", a lawyer asked permission to hold a protest in Hasakah. He was immediately arrested by the security forces to whom he made the request. By evening, at least 88 unarmed protesters had been murdered.
At this early stage, Mr Al Assad lost credibility with many Syrians. If they didn't before, they then knew that all talk of legal reform was irrelevant, because Syria is not run according to laws and institutions, but by the Assad family and its unaccountable security agencies. The law, like the parliament and cabinet, is a fiction, a theatre.
Syrians learnt to watch what the regime did rather then what it said. It released Salafists from prison and murdered the proponents of non-violent protest. It unleashed shabbiha militias and manipulated sectarian tension. It savagely bombed some liberated areas, but withdrew from Kurdish areas without a fight, even handing weapons over to PKK-linked militias. It applied a scorched-earth policy that has negligible military effect but destroys any possibility of social or economic rebuilding.
Actions speak louder than words. The regime's aim does not appear to be to negotiate a transition. If it can't retain total power, it will create a splintered and permanently ungovernable country. In this way Mr Al Assad hopes to survive as a warlord among warlords. Talking about talks provides him with time while distracting attention from his real aim.
Peace plans have been proposed by the Arab League, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, and Assad has scuppered the lot. Not for a day have his guns fallen silent.
So why is Mr Al Khatib shifting position now? Probably because he sees no sign of the National Coalition receiving the funds or arms it requires. The EU continues to embargo arms to the opposition; the US continues to prevent its Gulf allies from sending the necessary anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. No funds for the NC means extremely limited relevance on the ground. And the NC doesn't help its own cause - it still hasn't named a transitional government.
Yet with resistance advances in the north, east and now south, the tide is flowing steadily against Mr Al Assad. Continuing reverses may allow the regime's more intelligent minds to prevail over the bitter-enders (although to anticipate this would be naive). Mr Al Khatib's meeting on Saturday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov may or may not be a sign that Russia, finally recognising that the Assads will never regain control of Syria, is about to twist the regime's arm towards serious, rather than theatrical, negotiations.
Mr Al Khatib now says he's been invited to Moscow. It remains to be seen whether the regime will eventually negotiate its own exit. In the meantime, Mr Al Khatib and the NC, who have made efforts to reach out to regime soldiers and minority groups, should do more to address those who are tied to the regime not by ideology but by fear of the future. Syria's future stability depends much more on understandings with those people than with the regime which currently holds them hostage.
Updated: February 4, 2013 04:00 AM