The civil war in Syria, which took its inspiration from similar and seemingly successful “Arab Spring” uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, has deteriorated into a conflict in which it appears all parties stand to lose, including innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
The latest United Nations estimate puts the death toll at 60,000, and there’s no end in sight to the bloody conflict. In fact, judging by his one-hour speech Sunday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently doesn’t recognize the ugly reality facing him and his deeply divided nation.
For almost two years, Syria has been coming apart at the seams and yet Sunday Assad referred to the rebels as “murderous criminals” carrying out a foreign plot. He said he is ready to hold a dialogue, but he made it clear he would do so only with those “who have not betrayed Syria.” What is not clear is who he would engage in such a dialogue if he rules out those who seek his removal from office.
Speaking at the Opera House in central Damascus, the embattled president told his supporters that “we are in a state of war … we are fighting an external aggression that is more dangerous than any others, because they use us to kill each other.” He appears to take no responsibility for the brutal attacks that have cost so many civilian lives, even though they were carried out by government troops.
Assad called for a “national reconciliation” conference, elections and even a new constitution, but he also demanded that regional and western countries stop funding and arming the rebels who are determined to depose him. His tone was that of a confident leader, but the content of his speech suggested he’s either deliberately or unwittingly underestimating the scale of the problems he and his supporters — generally Alawite Muslims, the branch of Islam to which Assad belongs — are facing.
Meanwhile, there are reports that an opposition group has developed a plan for a transitional justice system that would impose harsh penalties against Assad’s inner circle but offer amnesty to most of his supporters.
The group’s objective is to establish a legal structure that would assure worried Alawites that this need not be a fight to the death and that they will still have a role to play in a post-Assad Syria. The plan envisions establishing the rule of law in those areas that have been liberated in order to thwart a growing trend toward a system that features Afghan-style warlords and revenge killings.
As described by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the plan was developed by the Syrian Support Group, an organization that supports moderate elements within the Free Syrian Army and that is being assisted by international lawyers. The idea, Ignatius wrote, is similar to the “truth and reconciliation” process that was helpful in resolving similar conflicts in South Africa, Rwanda and even Northern Ireland.
“It sends a strong positive signal to the people of Syria that victory for the rebels is inevitable” and that the new government “will deliver justice, compensate victims and be compassionate towards all,” a memo prepared by a London firm advising the Syrian Support Group explained.
Western nations offer the rebels encouragement and call on Assad to resign, but they dare not supply weapons for fear they’ll fall into the hands of opportunistic anti-West terrorists who are believed to have joined the rebel forces.
The best hope appears to be the Syrian Support Group’s approach. Let’s hope Washington lends its support.