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Diary


Roughly twice a week several carloads of people set off from middle-class areas of central Damascus for a ‘party’ in the unlikely setting of Qudsaya, an impoverished hill town about eight miles northwest of the city. As the guests drive up the steep streets to the town’s small central square, young men, some with scarves wrapped round their faces, look out for signs of danger. The ‘party’ is actually a protest against Bashar al-Assad’s regime; government security forces may appear at any moment. My first two attempts to get to Qudsaya failed when armed police and militia showed up at the last minute and the demonstrations were cancelled. Along with Barzeh, a northeastern suburb of Damascus, Qudsaya is the nearest place to the capital where there are regular protests against the regime. The bombardment of Homs has monopolised media coverage, but confrontations are going on in scores of other towns and now affect several outlying districts of Damascus itself. As is the case all over Syria, the majority of the protesters in Barzeh and Qudsaya are unemployed young men from poor homes. But they are getting more and more support from the Damascus middle class.

I finally arrived in Qudsaya early one evening. A young man scrambled up a tree where he hung the independence flag – green, white and black with three red stars. It first appeared when the French mandate ended in 1946, but the Baath Party dumped it when it took power in 1963. Now it is the symbol of what activists call the intifada or, more hopefully, the thawra (‘revolution’). On the dot of seven the lights went out in the blocks of flats on one side of the square. ‘Just the usual power cut,’ one of my escorts explained, pointing to the buildings opposite where the lights were still on. Electricity is rationed throughout Syria and cuts of six hours a day are common. Towns where there is unrest get longer cuts.
 

A young man headed up one of the unlit streets carrying a flaming torch. About two hundred others followed him, many with flags. One sat on a friend’s shoulders and shouted through a loudhailer: ‘We are the Arab people! Down with Bashar!’ The others joined in. News had come through that Rami al-Sayed, a Syrian ‘citizen journalist’ who had been risking his life for weeks, died in Homs the previous day along with Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. One of the marchers carried a banner with al-Sayed’s name and the message: ‘This day is for you.’ After a twenty-minute circuit around the town, with shopkeepers looking on impassively, the marchers returned to the central square, where a crowd of two thousand waited for the speeches to begin. A microphone stood next to a neon sign flashing a one-word slogan: erhal (‘leave’), the protesters’ message to Assad.

Young women in hijabs stood to the left of the crowd, chanting as enthusiastically as the men, but separated from them by a rope, partly to protect them but also to allow them to escape more quickly should the security forces appear. One or two bare-headed women could be seen in the throng and a small group of them stood just beyond it. ‘Welcome, Christian people,’ the first speaker shouted, addressing those women. The government claims the uprising is sectarian, a view its supporters are keen to disprove. ‘One, one, the Syrian people are one,’ the crowd chanted and the speaker roared: ‘This is the revolution’s vow.’ Row after row of people raised their right hands, chanting: ‘We will make our country one – Alawites, Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Druze and Kurds.’ Many of the chants were religious: ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is most great’) and ‘Labbayyka Allah’ (‘We obey you, God’). A girl in hijab came to the microphone and shouted: ‘We have nothing but our hope in God.’ People put their arms round their neighbours’ shoulders or waists and launched into a dance invented by protesters in Homs. They swayed to the right, then to the left, before bending forwards with their heads bowing towards their knees. The movement was repeated several times while the chanting continued.

‘I’m an atheist but I call out “Allahu Akbar” because it makes people feel strong,’ my escort, Anwar, explained on our way home. He is a Circassian, a member of a Caucasian minority which fled to Syria to escape the tsar’s armies. ‘“Allahu Akbar” is also a riposte to a regime slogan that says: “Bashar and nobody else.”’ Later, we had a glass of wine in a smoke-filled café in an upper-class district of Damascus. Anwar’s friend Rime admitted that she was petrified before each ‘party’. ‘Calling out “Allahu Akbar” helps to calm me down,’ she said. ‘But there’s another thing. In detention they sometimes force prisoners to shout, “There is no God but Bashar,” so the protesters want to show there is an alternative.’

The question of how far the protest movement is controlled by Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the major unknowns of the Syrian crisis. An even bigger question is the extent of support for the resistance a year after the unrest began. No one can accurately gauge the size of the movement, but despite its surface calm, and the usual traffic jams, Damascus feels like an occupied city. Opposition activists whisper at café tables, never sure whether the people sitting around them are informers. Many activists have gone ‘underground’, living away from home to avoid arrest. People use Skype or proxy SMS networks to make it harder for the regime to listen in. Many supporters of the regime, as well as some in the opposition, see sectarian divisions as fixed: they claim that all Alawites, the minority Shia sect from which the Assad family comes, are pro-regime, as are ethnic and religious minorities, Kurds, Druze, Circassians, Armenians and Christian Arabs (totalling about 40 per cent of the population). This seems too simple. There are certainly divisions within households. I spoke to a Christian who opposed the regime and whose wife supported it; a young woman from a secular Sunni family said her father backed the regime because he thought the Americans were manipulating the uprising, but her mother took the opposite view. While they argued about politics at home, in public they were part of the silent majority waiting anxiously for what comes next.

Rime, a secular Sunni and committed protester, belongs to a regime family: her father is a senior Baath Party member. She says he’s a coward. One of her friends is a relative of Assad’s wife, Asma. At a recent protest in a Damascus suburb they took refuge in a shop when the army started shooting. The owner pulled down the metal shutters but was forced to open them when troops threatened to smash their way in. The women claimed they had just been out shopping, but were ordered to show their IDs. ‘Oh, you’re part of Madam’s family,’ a security policeman said, not altogether surprised.

Many wealthier activists have been taking medical supplies, blankets and food to the half-dozen suburbs where the army has mounted offensives. In recent weeks there have been clashes in several suburbs between security forces and the Free Syrian Army, a network of locals, out-of-town armed volunteers and a trickle of defectors from the regular army. You can load up a car boot and deliver supplies to conflict zones easily enough, as long as you make sure that there are no army checkpoints along the way. But checkpoints are now more frequent and punishments more severe. ‘If they catch you, you will be detained for sure. It’s even forbidden to have a small first-aid kit in your car,’ Rime said. Supplies are delivered via back roads by an organised network, often at night. Motorbikes travel from Damascus to Homs.

The government is determined to keep central Damascus free of protests. The Syrian football league has been suspended for almost a year for fear that supporters would pour out of the grounds chanting anti-regime slogans. Crowds are allowed to gather only for Friday prayers and funeral processions. The security forces are liable to open fire at any sign of protest, as they did on 17 February at a mosque in Old Mezzeh, a forlorn semi-rural area of cactus hedges, vegetable fields and cheaply built concrete houses. The main city bypass runs through the area, along with the dual carriageway to Beirut. By the side of this road is New Mezzeh, which has a university campus, embassies, offices and blocks of middle-class flats, many of them occupied by Baath Party and government employees. Class is a significant factor in the Syrian protests, and the alienation and anger felt by the young unemployed who live so close to pro-regime prosperity must have contributed to the protest that erupted on 17 February. Class is also the reason many better-off Syrians cling to the regime, however much they privately deplore the repression. ‘People in Aleppo and Damascus don’t like the fact that the tables have been turned,’ one analyst said, ‘and that people from the countryside are dictating the terms.’

Five people were killed by the security forces in Old Mezzeh. The next morning Damascenes woke to discover that it had snowed overnight – something that doesn’t happen very often. Mount Kassioun, which overlooks the city, glistened a magnificent white. More than ten thousand people turned up for the funerals. All went well as the procession crossed the Beirut highway on its way to a mosque in New Mezzeh. But then people started shouting anti-Assad slogans and a group of women raised the independence flag. The authorities opened fire with live ammunition. People scattered in panic; two died.

‘It was almost romantic,’ a lawyer who lives in New Mezzeh told me, ‘the snowflakes falling, the girls with posters, the determination, the courage. My neighbours in New Mezzeh are mainly pious Sunnis. They go to the mosque to pray, but they’re not Islamists. People’s energy is amazing. They were singing in the mosque. It’s unheard of to sing in a mosque.’

I went to Old Mezzeh the next morning. The two killed at the previous day’s funeral were buried at dawn and the mood was grim. Young men with scarves at the ready to cover their faces stood in groups along the winding street. They didn’t expect to see any strangers and stared at me. Metal rubbish bins were drawn up, ready to be pulled across the road to make a barricade. Rocks and broken flagstones were on hand. Almost all the grocery shops were shuttered – a sign of protest – and an independence flag hung from a tree.

My guide took me to his parents’ house. His father told me how close he and his son had come to being killed during the Friday protest. They’d decided not to go to the Saturday funeral. Protests had started in Old Mezzeh four months earlier ‘because of injustice’, he said. When I asked him to specify the injustices, he laughed. ‘A pile of injustices as tall as the Himalayas.’ TV news had just announced that the German president was resigning. ‘He quit merely on suspicion of corruption. How far is that from our situation here? The president and his family have taken everything from the country. He has given all the best jobs to his Alawite friends. I haven’t liked them for forty years.’ The four or five Alawite families who lived in Old Mezzeh left last summer.

To check whether it was safe for us to leave, my guide’s father and his elderly wife went out for a stroll. They reported that there were armed police close by the house. We carried on talking, hoping there would be no heavy knock on the door. After half an hour the coast was clear and we hurried back to the car. When I contacted the family three days later, I learned they had left Old Mezzeh. The security police had raided houses nearby on two successive nights, taking away about twenty young men.

The government’s answer to the unrest has been to alternate repression with promises of dialogue and reform. One of the Damascus spring’s many surprises is how outspoken the ‘old opposition’ – politicians not from the Baath Party, for example – has been. Hassan Abbas, an academic sociologist, founded the Human Rights Association of Syria last year to monitor the regime’s claims. He is a veteran of the Damascus spring of 2000, when the president was new and many hoped he would relax his father’s political controls. Nothing came of it and in 2005 more than two hundred intellectuals, writers and politicians signed the Damascus Declaration, which called for peaceful change, dialogue with the regime and mutual respect. The regime imprisoned 12 of the signatories. So when last May, two months after the protests began, Assad began talking of dialogue, Abbas was sceptical. He refused to take part until the government withdrew its troops and put a stop to the mass arrests. During the summer and autumn the government organised the drafting of a new constitution. Parliament brought in four new laws which were claimed to be major reforms: on political parties, elections, new media and the press. ‘Each one contains a clause that keeps decision-making in government and Baath Party hands,’ Abbas said. No new political party can be registered without the approval of a committee, presided over by the interior minister. The state television channels still don’t allow opposition leaders to take part in live discussions. They pre-record occasional interviews but broadcast only the answers they find acceptable. ‘We’ve entered a war of resistance, a prolonged guerrilla war like El Salvador in the 1980s,’ Abbas says. ‘This could last for years.’ Though he initially supported the intervention in Libya, he is against anything similar in Syria: ‘it would inflame the whole region.’

The National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, the biggest opposition movement, held a conference in Damascus in September attended by more than 350 representatives. There were also conferences in Saudi Arabia and Paris for supporters who felt that returning home was too dangerous. The NCC provides an umbrella for 15 unofficial parties, mostly on the left and including Kurdish and Assyriac parties. The NCC, unlike the Syrian National Council, the group of exiles recently recognised by Britain and other Western governments, also opposes foreign military intervention. I went to see the committee’s leader, Hassan Abdul Azim, in his office in central Damascus. Sitting under a photograph of Nasser, he pointed proudly to the conference table where the Damascus Declaration had been announced at an illegal press conference in 2005. Azim supported the latest Arab League initiative, which called on Assad to transfer power to his vice-president and form a government of national unity – ‘as long as the opposition is in the majority’. But he didn’t endorse the proposal, recently put forward by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, that arms be supplied to the Free Syrian Army. ‘It would complicate the situation and lead to civil war and a sectarian conflict. We want political, economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime to stop the violence. It’s the only way.’

Overshadowing all my conversations in Damascus was the daily news of artillery barrages in Homs. Although the superficially tranquil capital sometimes seemed as remote from Homs as London or Paris, you didn’t have to go far to meet people from the city. My hotel began to fill up with wealthy refugees, people who could afford not to stay in crowded flats with relatives or friends. In cafés visited by activists I was introduced to less affluent escapees. A 19-year-old girl from Khaldiya, a Sunni district of Homs, spoke of a friend being gang-raped by soldiers and militia, and an elderly man shot as he emerged from a mosque. Her father was wounded with a bayonet when troops burst into the house searching for weapons. A dentist from Zabadani in the mountains near Lebanon said that 70 per cent of its population of 35,000 fled to safer towns during army attacks in January.

The government is reluctant to accept that anyone has been displaced. As a result the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which mounted a large government-backed programme to help people who fled to Syria from Iraq, can do little for Syrians fleeing their own crisis. The collapse in everyday law enforcement has caused a rise in criminality, which particularly affects groups with little protection, like the 100,000 Iraqis registered with the UNHCR. ‘Iraqis were welcomed initially but are seen now as pro-government,’ a senior UN official said. An aid worker spoke of ‘a wave of protest, which everyone is surfing – smugglers, criminals, you name it. They’re all calling for democracy because it’s good for their business to have lawlessness.’

The fact that minorities are often the first victims of chaos is a major concern of Syria’s Christians, some 10 per cent of the population. The country has a long history of tolerance towards its many denominations, including Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians, Greek Catholics and some Protestants. ‘We are in a time of banditry, stealing and private terrorism. It’s much worse even than two months ago,’ Gregorios III, the patriarch of the country’s 350,000 Greek Catholics, told me. He says that in his hometown of Khabab in Deraa province, which is largely populated by Greek Catholics, strangers knock on people’s doors and demand money or cooking gas and olive oil. On the other hand, Christians have started to show solidarity with Muslims: in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, church bells rang and hundreds of Christians joined the funeral of three Muslims killed by the army. But Gregorios declines to criticise the government’s use of force or the mass arrests by security police. ‘The image in Europe is that the army is attacking people for its own sake. That is stupid. The army has to come into people’s houses to search for revolutionaries. We are in a time of war.’

Amid all the talk of humanitarian crisis, there has been very little coverage until recently of the relief work being done by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent. When Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, called for ‘humanitarian corridors’ to provide aid for victims of the conflict, he seemed not to know that aid was already getting through. The ICRC spokesman in Damascus, Saleh Dabbakeh, told me that when the ICRC called for a daily two-hour pause in the shelling of Homs and other cities, it was widely reported as if no aid had yet got in though what was actually sought was increased access.

Many opposition activists treat the Red Crescent as a pro-government body and in January Abdul Razaq Jbeiro, its secretary-general, was shot dead while travelling in a Red Crescent vehicle. ‘Many people here say that if we’re not with them, we’re against them,’ Khaled Erksoussi, the Red Crescent’s operations chief, said as he showed me round their response unit. ‘It would be easy to be on one side. It’s much harder to be in the middle. At the beginning of the protests, people in the street didn’t know who to call in case of injury for fear of capture. There was no trust. Now we have gained it. We have a hotline and provide first aid at home, if people prefer that. Ambulances take people home if they don’t wish to go to hospital.’ The Red Crescent has to negotiate with the government and rebel commanders for access to conflict zones. It is usually harder to get permission from rebel or Free Syrian Army leaders than from the government: some competent authority needs to order and maintain any ceasefire and ambulance crews often ask callers to the hotline to make safe-passage arrangements themselves and ring back when they have guarantees from a legitimate commander.

Sami Latif (not his real name), a Sunni doctor from Homs, takes a critical view of the black-and-white way the conflict is usually portrayed. A longtime critic of the regime, he now describes himself as neutral. He says he lost confidence in the opposition’s claims when he was told by friends who took part in demonstrations in Deraa and Homs that long before the Free Syrian Army became involved protesters were using guns. He says that sometimes they shot civilians by mistake and covered it up. ‘It doesn’t mean the violence of the regime is not huge,’ Latif said. ‘We’ve seen them beating and torturing people in the street. But I believed in the movement’s peacefulness and honesty and it was a shock.’ The recent assassinations of critics of the opposition worry him. Facebook carries a blacklist of so-called awayni(‘collaborators’). Top of the list was Ahmad Sadiq, imam of a mosque in Damascus. On 16 February he was shot dead while unloading his car.

Latif says he ‘started having doubts about the media coverage when al-Jazeera claimed two hundred people died on the day the UN Security Council resolution was debated. My friend in Homs said it was more like sixty. I remembered the siege of Nahr al-Bared in Lebanon a few years ago. It sustained four months of artillery shelling from the Lebanese army. When it was over TV pictures showed more buildings flattened than in Homs. Yet total casualties over that period were 450.’ Latif’s argument is that the opposition is weak and ‘they know they cannot achieve the regime’s fall in the way it happened in Egypt. They want people to sympathise with Syrians so they exaggerate to get the world’s attention and create a big dossier at the UN Human Rights Council to put as much pressure as possible on Assad to resign.’ He was angry that the Syrian National Council was formally recognised by the West. ‘We feel they’re stealing the revolution from us. Most of them live outside Syria and no one has elected them.’

Some in the opposition still believe that dialogue with the regime is possible. Louai Hussein, a writer and journalist who spent seven years in prison in the 1980s without being put on trial and was briefly detained again last March, is the founder of an unlicensed NGO called Building the Syrian State. He not only rejects the idea of foreign governments sending weapons to the Free Syrian Army but believes that the FSA and local defence committees should not have taken up arms at all. The struggle against the regime should be carried out peacefully with demonstrations, strikes and civil disobedience. He wants a dialogue that would be more like a negotiation between equals than anything that has taken place so far. ‘The regime expects a dialogue in which it is the presiding power while we are nothing more than complainants or petitioners. They treat the crisis as a small problem. We reject that kind of dialogue. We only accept dialogue if it’s about transferring power and not if it’s led by the regime.’ He was frustrated by his experiences last year, when he met Bouthaina Shaaban, Assad’s political and media adviser, six times. He put forward numerous proposals for reform, among them agreed rules on how long demonstrations could last and requiring security police to have their names and numbers clearly displayed on their uniforms. Although he was told that the president had approved several ideas, no real changes were implemented. He also met the vice-president, Farouk al-Sharaa, four times, but nothing came of that either.

Most members of the opposition called for a boycott of last month’s referendum that approved Assad’s new constitution. One person who didn’t is Kadri Jamil, an old Communist Party member and leader of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation – but then he served on the committee that drafted it. Many criticise the powers the new constitution gives the president – MPs won’t have the right to hold a vote of no confidence in any government he appoints – but Jamil points to such successes as the removal of the Baath Party’s monopoly of power: new political parties will now be able to compete for seats in parliament and there will be contested direct elections for the presidency. Two years ago such changes would have seemed enormous.

As the deadlock continues, Western governments are bent on tightening sanctions. In Damascus few support the idea. They worry about a replay of Iraq in the 1990s when sanctions left Saddam Hussein’s regime untouched but impoverished the nation. EU sanctions on Syria’s oil exports, the country’s largest source of foreign exchange as well as government revenue, have led to a sharp drop in output and a surge in unemployment and inflation. Private companies have been cutting jobs at an alarming rate, forcing many to look for work in Lebanon and the Gulf. The transport disruption caused by the fighting has dealt a further blow to production: in many cities workers can’t get to their factories. The refusal of Arab states to deal with the Syrian Central Bank has damaged regional trade as businessmen find it hard to get credit or payments are delayed.

Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist who now runs a private consultancy, estimates that growth dropped by 6 per cent last year and will be down by at least another 2 per cent in the first six months of this year. Inflation was 17 per cent last year and could reach 20 per cent by the end of March. Bottles of cooking gas, which almost every household relies on, have gone up in price by 80 per cent. But he doesn’t believe the regime will be undermined by sanctions in the short term, since Syria is self-sufficient in basic foodstuffs. When the crisis began last year, the country had foreign exchange reserves of $17 billion and a national debt of only 10 per cent of GDP, a ratio European countries would envy. The souvenir and antique shops of Damascus’s Old City are empty of customers, as the owners ply their worry-beads and drink tea with friends – but tourism is less important here than in Egypt or Tunisia.

Sukkar believes he is part of a ‘silent majority who want to see reconciliation and a peaceful transition to democracy’. He criticises the regime for ‘still acting like God’, but believes it is showing more willingness to compromise. He is concerned, however, about the way Syria is being treated by other states. The US reaction was to be expected: the surprise was that Turkey and Qatar, who were among Syria’s closest allies two years ago, have turned on Assad and his Alawite regime. Qatar seems to be following the American script, in which Iran is a regional threat and anything that weakens the Alawite Shias will be a blow to the Shia regime in Tehran. But there is more to Turkey’s volte-face. In Sukkar’s view, Turkey wants a toehold in Europe, the Caspian Sea and the Middle East: this is the ‘new Ottomanism’. Syria has always been Turkey’s gateway to the Middle East but since the Arab spring the Islamists in Turkey have become more ambitious. They support the Islamist opposition to Assad because they see the Muslim Brotherhood, their ideological partner, as the future power throughout the region.

And then there’s Russia and China. The Western media have largely caricatured them as defenders of the regime thanks to their vetoes of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria. But in the days before the vote on 4 February diplomats in New York had been working with two separate drafts, trying to find a compromise text. Far from siding with Assad, the Russian draft differed little from the Moroccan one the West supported. It condemned the authorities’ ‘disproportionate use of force’. It called for an immediate ceasefire. The two substantive differences were that the Russian draft said the political process should start ‘without preconditions’ while the Western-backed draft supported the Arab League’s call for Assad to transfer power to his vice-president before a dialogue could begin. In the event of non-compliance, the Western draft threatened ‘further measures’. The Russians had no such clause. For reasons that are still not clear, the West decided to ambush the Russians and Chinese and put the Moroccan draft to a sudden vote just before Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was due to visit Assad to conduct negotiations. The West knew that in its regime-changing form the Russians and Chinese would have no choice but to veto the resolution. If the Russians had been less diplomatic, they might have put their own draft to a sudden vote. We might then today be shouting at the West for vetoing a solution.

Few analysts in Syria or outside it expect the regime to fall soon. Nor is there any sign of the army splitting. The drip-drip of defections to the Free Syrian Army is confined mainly to young and inexperienced conscripts. The offensives in Deraa, Idlib and Homs have been led by the 4th Armoured Division, which is well equipped and well trained, and has an officer corps largely made up of Alawites. It is commanded by Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s younger brother. Alawite officers from the division are reported to have been seconded to Sunni units to check up on their loyalty and performance.

Among young activists in Damascus, there is pessimism. When I asked the group that organised my trip to Qudsaya if they wanted Nato to bomb the regime’s military assets, as happened in Libya, they all said no. What did they expect to happen? There was a nervous laugh. ‘We are secular,’ Anwar said, ‘but we just hope in God – though that’s not a solution.’ Their confusion reminded me of the mood among Iraqis before the American invasion. While Saddam’s regime was widely detested, Iraqis feared chaos, upheaval and sectarian conflict and suspected they would be victims of the whims of outside powers.

The tragedy of Syria’s arrested revolution is that last year’s optimism and energy have been undermined by the gradual militarisation of parts of the opposition. If the regime wanted to provoke its opponents into taking up arms, it has succeeded. ‘I feel a great opportunity has been lost,’ said a European intellectual who has lived in Damascus for the last decade and a half. ‘I was impressed by the way Syrians took responsibility for their lives by peaceful means, and by how reasonable and balanced people are in their views. I’ve heard no calls for revenge. But now we’re in a phase of disintegration, close to civil war or perhaps in civil war already. The idealism is in danger of being crushed. The regime is playing a very cynical game. They deny the fact that the opposition movement comes from inside. They have no intention of conducting genuine elections, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to.’

Can anything bridge the gap? Under Russian coaxing the government seems to have accepted international mediation. If a ceasefire follows, it would be a major step. The Russian and Chinese vetoes met with outrage in the West, but in Damascus the silent majority felt only relief. The Libyan model of Nato bombing was the one Western governments, flushed with their triumph in toppling Gaddafi, had in mind for Syria. What Syrians remember is the Iraqi model: more than a million Iraqis fled into Syria from a country tipped into civil war. Mediation will require the opposition and their Western and Arab League backers to drop their insistence on Assad’s departure before talks begin.

Sukkar, the economist, is even-handed. ‘Unfortunately, neither side is willing to compromise. Both sides are to blame. The regime has used force but the opposition is pretty well armed and getting more so. Russia is extremely important in putting pressure on the regime. We also need someone who could put pressure on the opposition. Their increasing militancy only makes the regime more determined to maintain a hard line. But the opposition can feel confident that the regime has already been weakened enough to negotiate.’ Jihad Makdissi, the foreign ministry spokesman, argues that members of the opposition are refusing to negotiate for fear of being called regime toadies. ‘No one dares to confront the street and say we need dialogue. Once they say it the street will treat them as though they are like the regime.’

Jamil, the opposition politician, believes that the vetoes have made it easier to open negotiations because they make it clear that the Syrians have to solve the crisis on their own. ‘A very big political decision is needed for dialogue to start,’ he said. ‘The experience of the last 11 months shows that the regime cannot stop the protests and the protests cannot remove the regime.’ In his view the regime carries 70 per cent of the responsibility for the violence. So it must demonstrate its good intentions by releasing all detainees and creating a government of national unity.

Russia has offered to chair preliminary talks, but the opposition is suspicious. ‘They’re not neutral and they haven’t given us evidence that the Syrian authorities are serious,’ Louai Hussein said. The most realistic hope for mediation lies with the UN. The recent appointment of Kofi Annan as the special envoy for Ban Ki-moon and the Arab League was the best news Syria’s silent majority has had for months. In spite of Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric, Washington may be backing away from demanding Assad’s resignation. The signs are that the US and the Arab League fear that to support the opposition is to encourage the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Clinton told the BBC in February that there was ‘every possibility’ of civil war in Syria. ‘Outside intervention would not prevent that, it would probably expedite it. We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region: al-Qaida, Hamas and those who are on our terrorist list claiming to support the opposition. You have many Syrians more worried about what could come next.’ It sounded like a retreat.

Whether or not Annan will be able to do anything, the real question is how a transition to a new political system can be negotiated. If negotiations succeed, could there be free elections for parliament this year? Might they result in a coalition between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Baathists, creating a balance between a largely Islamist polity and a secular army, the formula which was once unique to Turkey but, thanks to the Arab Spring, has already spread to Egypt and Tunisia? We are getting ahead of ourselves. First there must be a ceasefire. 

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