The Syrian parliamentary elections has solved nothing. Damascus argues that the new constitution and a new parliament formed after a multiparty poll are proof positive that the government has embarked on a serious reform programme. But the external and internal opposition dismissed the poll as a “fraud” while Arab and Western powers supporting regime change insist that the government is simply using the election to buy the time needed to crush the 14-month-old revolt.
However, the government is not the only party trying to buy time. The opposition and its backers also want to prolong the crisis in order to weaken the government, undermine the loyalty of the army, strengthen the rebel forces and forge a unified opposition front.
The only way out of the crisis — if the bloodletting is to stop — is dialogue. Neither side can defeat the other so they have to talk. This is where buying time comes in. Each side seeks to bolster its position on the ground and in the minds of the Syrians before seriously considering dialogue.
I say “seriously considering” dialogue because the government and the various opposition groups are operating at two levels. At the declaratory level, they insist that they are ready for negotiations on a transition. But at policy level, neither is prepared to talk.
The government, which has no intention of ceding power, argues that it has completed the reform process by adopting a new constitution which provides for multiparty politics and limits presidents to two seven-year terms, and by holding elections for a new national assembly.
Meanwhile, the army and security forces continue to bring under state control areas which had fallen to the rebels. Security operations in the Damascus countryside and along the northern, eastern and western borders have reduced the activities of rebel militias and the Free Syrian Army.
The opposition as a whole claims that it adheres to the policy of one “yes” and three “nos”: yes to dialogue, and no to militarisation of the rebellion, to external military intervention and to sectarianism.
Syria-based opposition groups — the National Coordination Board (NCB) and Building the Syrian State — continue to stick to this policy.
Abdel Aziz Al Khair, a leading figure in the NCB, said that the domestic opposition would be prepared to hold dialogue with members of the regime who are neither” bloodstained nor corrupt”. He indicated that Vice President Farouk Sharaa and certain army officers could be acceptable interlocutors. He also said that President Bashar Assad, his family and army officers involved in the crackdown on dissent should be permitted to leave the country peacefully.
The Syrian National Council, the main expatriate coalition, the Free Syrian Army, and some local militias profess support for the policy of one “yes” and three “nos,” but prepare for militarisation and external intervention even if this means sectarian warfare.
The current narratives of the two sides not only exclude dialogue, they also deepen the gulf between government and opposition. The government continues to blame violence on external forces and “terrorists” — and is correct to a certain extent — while the opposition holds that security forces are committing atrocities, mass rapes and massacres, as well as demolishing entire neighbourhoods of restive cities, towns and villages.
The government’s refusal to admit it had mishandled the protests that erupted in March last year and to initiate promptly serious dialogue with the protesters has created the current conflict-ridden situation. This has been exacerbated by the opposition’s exaggeration of atrocities which have made meetings and negotiations nearly impossible.
A well-informed diplomat based in Damascus observed that some Syrians who supported the protest movement several months ago have begun to shift to the government side because of violence committed by the rebels and fear of all-out civil war. Furthermore, in spite of claims by detractors that the election counted for nothing, Syrians who never voted before went to the polls and cast ballots even though little was known about candidates who did not have clear political programmes.
Indeed, some friends of this writer who did not vote in the referendum on the new constitution held at the end of February spent a considerable amount of time studying candidate lists and deciding whom to support. When they cast their ballots, they felt a certain sense of satisfaction once they deposited their ballots in the plastic boxes at the polling station where they were assigned to vote.
Along with many other Syrians, they were impressed by the debate that preceded the vote as well as bucked by the experience of going to the polls.
Syrians who formerly hesitated to discuss politics now shout politics in cafés or on the street, and commit themselves in public broadcasts.
Opposition figures meet openly with journalists while underground activists attached to the SNC and rebel groups arrange not-so-clandestine encounters and speak openly about the two-track policy they are following.
Nabil Sukkar, an independent economic consultant, predicted: “I think things are going to come under control in a couple of months. The army is fully supportive of the regime. The West cannot topple it.
“If there are no negotiations between government and opposition leading to the formation of a national unity government, the most likely scenario is that things will continue [as they are] until 2014 when the president will declare he will not run. There will be new elections and a new Alawite figure close to the [ruling Baath-dominated] front will emerge.”