President Bashar al-Assad should be given the chance to implement the reforms that he has promised.
In his address at Damascus University on June 20 2011, he drew the attention of the world to the ‘National Dialogue’ he had initiated which will focus on the comprehensive reform of state and social institutions. The Dialogue, with representation from all sectors of society, aims to change existing laws on elections, political parties, local administration, and the media in order to create a society that embodies the freedom and dignity of the people. It seeks to amend and perhaps even replace the present Constitution of Syria. A democratically elected People’s Assembly may be inaugurated in August 2011. The Dialogue also envisages enhancing the fight against corruption through an Anti-Corruption Commission.
While concerned mainly about political reforms, Bashar’s speech failed to recognise that fundamental economic changes would be necessary to reduce widening disparities between the rich and poor and to curb huge increases in the cost of essential goods and services. It is of course true that the massive influx of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees since 2003 added to the 0.5 million Palestinian refugees from an earlier period have also severely strained the Syrian economy.
Nonetheless, Bashar’s commitment to reforms through a National Dialogue gives hope.
One, he has openly acknowledged the legitimacy and sincerity of the demands of authentic protesters for meaningful change, and identified with their demands.
Two, unlike some other Arab rulers, he has laid out a whole process through which reforms would be introduced, complete with time frames. In fact, Bashar began this process even before the National Dialogue through small and big meetings with thousands of people from all over Syria.
Three, he has already set into motion some important changes. The emergency laws have been rescinded and the state security court abolished. More than 6,000 Kurds who hitherto had no citizenship rights have been accepted into the Syrian fold.
Four, the President has shown that he is prepared to reconcile even with the men and women who were part of the armed insurrection against the State by extending an amnesty to all those who turn themselves in with their weapons. This also creates the right climate for reform within a cohesive social order.
Five, it is only too apparent that in spite of months of peaceful and violent protest against him, Bashar remains immensely popular with the vast majority of his people. After his June 20 address, millions and millions of people poured into the streets in a mammoth show of support and solidarity with Bashar. With such support, he would be in a stronger position to carry forward his reform mission.
And this is precisely what Bashar will have to do. He should be bold and brave enough to overcome the opposition to his reforms. Some observers have argued that he has been somewhat hesitant to bring about far-reaching changes because he does not want to antagonise the old guard and deeply entrenched vested interests.
Indeed, he should have the courage to call for a presidential election, to invite his opponents to stand against him in a free and fair contest. It will cut the ground from under the feet of all those who are out to subvert him.
Bashar has incurred the wrath of a number of actors within and without the region mainly because of his principled position on Israel which continues to occupy Syria’s Golan Heights. Syria also shelters Hamas leaders and has been steadfast in its commitment towards the Palestinian cause. Bashar and Syria have maintained close ties with the Hizbollah in Lebanon and with Iran. For Israel, the US government and some Arab rulers, this is not acceptable--- which is why they are allegedly funding and arming some of the Syrian protesters.
The Western dominated global media ignore foreign meddling in Syria. They refuse to admit that Bashar is faced with an armed insurrection which has witnessed killing, arson and sabotage. Like any other head of government he has no choice but to use force to quell the insurrection. At the same time, none of the major television channels highlighted the massive show of support for Bashar after his June 20 address. Instead, some of the media have been fabricating news like the lie about a non-existent Syrian internet blogger by the name of “Amina Arraf” being arrested and kidnapped. Even some video clips shown by Aljazeera and CNN do not match their news content, as pointed out by the Italian newspaper, La Rinascita.
The media, it is obvious, are determined to ensure that those who resist US-Zionist helmed hegemony are defeated.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) and Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
22 June 2011