Reforms on track

Published : Apr 06, 2012 00:00 IST

President Assad gets a democratic Constitution endorsed in a referendum despite the efforts of the West to spark a full-scale civil war.

in Damascus

IN the last week of February, the people of Syria overwhelmingly endorsed a new Constitution, which would theoretically end the monopoly of the long-ruling Baath Party. The new Constitution is part of the reform package that the Bashar al-Assad government had promised to implement after the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in Tunisia in December 2010, hit Syria in 2011. Around 57.4 per cent of those eligible to vote participated in the referendum and around 89.4 per cent of them approved the Constitution.

A few days after the results of the referendum were announced, Syrian security forces finally ejected rebel fighters from Baba Amr, a suburb of the city of Homs. Among the fighters reportedly captured by the security forces there were a few militants from the Indian subcontinent. The security forces have now turned their focus on towns such as Idlib in the north and Dera in the south, where rebel fighters trained in countries such as Turkey and Libya are still holding out in small pockets.

Phillip Giraldi, a well-informed former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer, has written that French and British Special Forces officers are now on the ground in Syria assisting the rebels with the CIA, and U.S. Spec Ops [United States Special Operations] providing communication equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian troops. Giraldi has corroborated what others have been saying for some time now, that foreign military intervention has already started in Syria. Stratfor, the private intelligence firm with close links with the Pentagon, has confirmed the presence of Western Special Forces inside Syria. The Lebanese website Al Manar, quoting Syrian officials, said that 700 Arab and Western fighters were captured from Baba Amr.

The Syrian Army also uncovered tunnels and equipment, which included advanced Israeli, European and American arms that have not yet been tested in the countries of their manufacture, said Salim Harba, a Syrian expert on military affairs. According to WikiLeaks' U.S. State Department documents, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had, in 2009, sanctioned the delivery of sophisticated electronic equipment to the Syrian opposition. Foreign diplomats this correspondent spoke to in Damascus said that Western countries had positioned military trainers in neighbouring countries.

A recent report in a Jordanian newspaper said that 6,000 Libyan fighters trained by the West had recently landed in Jordan. In the Baba Amr neighbourhood in Homs, the rebels were supplied anti-tank missiles and other sophisticated weaponry. They had mined the area heavily, making it difficult for relief agencies to move in after the area was subdued in early March. In Homs, more damage was done by the mortars fired by the rebels than by the government siege.

Diplomats in Damascus also point out that the figure of civilians killed so far in the conflict that erupted in March last year has been deliberately exaggerated. Even deaths occurring naturally were passed on by the rebels as casualties. In all, 2,100 security personnel have been killed in the year-long conflict. The Syrian government has provided a list of soldiers killed. Western media reports have put the toll at 7,500, basing the figures on the statistics provided by the opposition.

Despite the efforts of the West and its allies to spark a full-scale civil war, the referendum on the Constitution proceeded as per schedule and in a peaceful atmosphere. Interior Minister Ibrahim al Shaar told the media in Damascus that the people had voted with full freedom and that the results of the referendum fulfilled the wishes of the people. He said there were attempts to sabotage the referendum but the government had given the people a choice to vote in areas where they felt safe. Around 14,000 mobile voting booths were set up.

According to the Minister, some people in Homs and Idlib were prevented from voting, but he pointed out that only a small area of Homs had been affected by the current turmoil. According to many Syrians who are otherwise critical of the government, the new Constitution is a step in the right direction. This is one of the reasons for the reportedly high turnout. Most Syrians want an early end to the crisis, which has impacted gravely on the country's economy and fractured the social cohesion that had existed. This correspondent witnessed a big rush at polling centres in the capital. Those against the government evidently decided to stay at home while its supporters came in droves, accompanied by flag-waving musical bands.

Under the new Constitution, which is heavily inspired by the French Constitution, the President can only be in office for two terms. The presidential election is scheduled for 2014, the year President Assad's current term ends. Multiparty parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in May this year. The elections are to be supervised by an independent electoral commission. President Assad had said on several occasions that he would like to go down in history as the man who first introduced genuine democratic reforms in the Arab world. Most Syrians are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. The reform process is finally on track though many Syrians and well-wishers of the country feel that the reform process should have started much earlier.

As the Syrian government was preparing for the referendum, various opposition groups, under the watchful eyes of the West and the Gulf states, met in Tunis in an effort to forge a united front. Hillary Clinton, who was present at the Friends of Syria meeting, tried her best to push for military intervention inside Syria. But this idea was rejected by many senior Arab Foreign Ministers and officials present at the meeting. Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki refused to contemplate military intervention. Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdelsalem reminded some of the hawkish diplomats from the West and the Gulf that the Tunisian revolution was a peaceful one.

The Syrian opposition, despite the best efforts of the West and with the Saudi and Qatari diplomats opening their purse strings, refused to sink their differences and unite. All the same, the two Gulf monarchies announced that they would bring democracy to Syria by arming the rebels. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, emerging after a meeting with Hillary Clinton in Tunis, said that arming the rebels was an excellent idea as the opposition had to protect itself. Thousands of Tunisians briefly disrupted the meeting, chanting slogans against the U.S. military presence in the region. Hillary Clinton's motorcade had to be diverted from the conference site while Tunisian security forces removed the demonstrators.

Ordinary Syrian citizens and most foreign diplomats based in Damascus concede that President Assad still continues to enjoy the support of 55-60 per cent of the populace. A recent YouGov Siraj poll commissioned by the Doha Debates, sponsored by the Qatar Foundation, found that 55 per cent of Syrians wanted Assad to stay. Not much publicity was given to the results of the poll in the international media. The Qatari royal family is in the forefront of the anti-Assad campaign. It has been calling on the international community to intervene militarily in Syria. A diplomat from South Asia said that 90 per cent of the minorities along with 30 per cent of the Sunnis continued to support Assad. Minorities consisting of Alawites, Christians, Druze and Kurds constitute around 40 per cent of the population.


Syrian Vice-President Najah al-Attar, speaking to a group of Indian journalists in Damascus, said that her country was once again waging a battle against colonialism. She said the conspiracy against Syria had started with the redrawing of maps during the colonial era. She said the former colonial powers were unhappy with the principled foreign policy the country had adopted since independence in 1948.

They want us to change our position. They have a project for the Middle East [West Asia] that aims to put an end to our unity and encourage sectarianism, she said. Najah al-Attar said Libya was a graphic illustration. She pointed out that the West along with its supporters in the region showed absolutely no remorse for the killing of 150,000 people, most of them civilians, in the conflict. In Iraq, more than a million people perished as a result of the U.S. invasion in 2003 and the sanctions imposed on that country.

She said President Assad could not implement his reform package at a faster pace because of the catastrophic events that shook the region after he took over. First, there was the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which led to an upsurge in terrorism in the region and resulted in the influx of more than two million refugees into Syria. Then there were the two wars waged by Israel, against Lebanon and Gaza. Both the wars had briefly threatened to engulf the entire region. Najah al-Attar wondered why the West was silent about the casualties that Israel had inflicted in the two wars on hapless civilians. Israeli atrocities do not make the West unhappy, she said.

She accused Washington and its allies of funding and training rebel groups in Syria even while hypocritically calling for a peaceful dialogue to end the crisis. They [the West] are calling it a revolution of the people. Our people want normalcy. They believe in the President. She emphasised that the reform process would be implemented carefully. The new Constitution will guarantee a new life for the citizens. There will be more media freedom. The government plans to set up an independent media body. The opposition parties already publish weekly papers. More opposition papers are scheduled be out in a couple of months.

Najah al-Attar said her country was the only one in the region to oppose U.S. hegemony. Syria is facing hardship but it has the courage to keep on supporting the resistance, she said. Syria is the main backer of the resistance, Hizbollah and Hamas in the region, and has been uncompromising in its stance against Israel. The Syrian leader revealed that Washington had conveyed to Damascus that Syria could have stability if it cut off support to Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran. According to Najah al-Attar, the Syrian government bent over backwards to accommodate the demands of the international community and the opposition. Our offer for dialogue has been rejected. The opposition wants only regime change. The Syrian Army was withdrawn from Homs, Dera and Idlib so that the Arab League Observers Mission could carry out its work unimpeded. She noted that the report prepared by the head of the Mission was ignored by the Arab League as it did not fit the League's game plan. The Gulf states are acting like puppies of the Americans, she observed. The senior Syrian leader conceded that there were some good people in the opposition and that the government had kept the door for negotiations open. Russia's mediation efforts were rejected by the opposition. We are sad but not afraid. President Assad reiterated his offer of talks when Kofi Annan, the newly appointed United Nations/Arab League envoy to Syria, visited Damascus in the second week of March.

Najah al-Attar dismissed reports of defections from the Syrian Army. She said only a small number had defected. Our Army will never be divided. We are protecting not only ourselves but the entire Arab nation. She defended the Army's human rights record, asserting that it is doing its best to protect civilians.

If the Syrian Army did what the armed groups are doing, we could have crushed them a long time ago. She was especially scathing about the interference of neighbouring Turkey in the internal affairs of Syria. Turkey has been acting as an agent of the U.S. There have been protests inside Turkey against the role of the government there. The Turkish people don't want their government to take sides. She said Libyan Islamists, Al Qaeda, and Turkish and French military officers were operating inside Syria. She also revealed that some of the weapons came from Israel.

Najah al-Attar said Syria was being subjected to information warfare. Reports in the Western and Arab satellite channels, she said, were not based on the facts on the ground and the threat posed by terrorism was being downplayed deliberately. She said 90 per cent of the Syrian people had stopped watching Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. They are seen as partners of the armed terrorist groups. There is no denying the fact that Al Qaeda is very much active in Syria. The suicide bomb attacks in Damascus and Aleppo in recent months are illustrations. In fact, the presence of militant groups has helped galvanise public opinion in favour of the government. The Syrian people do not want their country to become another Iraq or for that matter a new Libya, where armed militias are today ruling the roost after the country was liberated with the help of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The U.S., Saudi Arabia and Qatar are spokesmen of and partners in fostering terrorism, Najah al-Attar said. She said that besides civilians, the militant groups had targeted communication centres and gas pipelines. Syria today suffers from a shortage of electricity as a result of acts of sabotage against its energy grid.

The Vice-President is confident that her country will soldier on despite the odds stacked against it. Syria is self-sufficient and it has no external debts, she explained. Diplomats in Damascus are of the view that Syria can rough it out as it has been used to decades of sanctions.

But the latest set of sanctions has had a debilitating effect. For some months, Syria has not been able to export its oil, a key source of foreign exchange. Syria's oil is refined in western Europe and sold in the domestic markets. Traditional friends such as Iran are bound to help Syria in times of need. Venezuela has already dispatched a consignment of refined oil to Syria. Many Syrians outside the government say that the government can survive another 10 years being unaffected by the sanctions. Sanctions will affect the common man but nobody is going to starve, a resident of Damascus observed. He said the unemployment rate was rising alarmingly. The West and the Arab monarchies are promising a bonanza for the Syrian people if there is a regime change. At the Tunis Conference, $20 billion was on offer for a new government in Syria. But, he said, the Syrian people were aware that the West was using the country as a pawn.

A well-placed Syrian technocrat, who is ambivalent about the government on many issues, told this correspondent that the attacks by the Western media and Al Jazeera became shriller whenever the government introduced more reforms. The opposition, he said, was aware of the media game and was willing to sleep with the devil to achieve its goal. He described the anti-Assad revolution as one that does not have a road map and which excludes the minorities and other groups. He said many of the rebel fighters were Salafists. He, for one, would prefer a civil war rather than allow the country to be run by Salafists. At the same time, he admitted that Assad had not kept many of his promises and had lost around 10 per cent of his popularity after the siege of Homs. He said Assad's close advisers would not allow him to step down. Senior Vice-President Farouq al-Sharaa wants the President to continue at the helm.

Ahmad Hussain, the Grand Mufti of Damascus who lost his son to the bullets of terrorists a few months ago, said Bashar al-Assad would like nothing better than to practise medicine again but circumstances had forced him to stay on in power. The spiritual head of Syrian Sunnis said the President is neither sectarian nor has a military background. He said under Assad Syria would become a shining example for the rest of the Arab world, but the Gulf countries and some of Syria's immediate neighbours were working overtime to sabotage Assad's plans to build a strong nation. The unfolding situation in Syria does not suit the West, the Grand Mufti said.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment