By Rashmi Saksena
DAMASCUS: It is spring time inSyria. Juicy oranges heaped in ‘souks’ (markets) are being sold at Rs 5 a kg. The olive trees are weighed down by fruit and almonds are being served by the plateful in the coffee houses that dot every lane in Damascus. The balmy weather has families out on picnics. But this spring is different from those gone by. In parts of Syria there is the darkness of death and violence.
This is also not the spring the world is monitoring closely through UN observers and the media. The international community is tracking the perceived coming of the Arab spring clone in Syria and how its President Bashar al-Assad deals with the uprising against his 12 year rule. For the last 14 months Syria has witnessed violent street protests against the heavy handed Assad regime as well as mass rallies chanting in his favour. Gun battles and heavy artillery exchange between armed rebel gangs and the military have killed and turned Homs, Daraa and Adliba into conflict zones. According to UN figures more than 9000 civilians have died in military fire while the Syrian Government claims that armed gangs have killed 12,000 pro Assad men and soldiers in the last 14 months. The UN has put its observer in Syria in keeping with Kofi Annans peace plan to report the ground reality.
It is in this scenario that Syria will hold on May 7 its first ever multi-party Parliamentary election. It is to be a landmark poll in the history of Syria which till now was bound by a Constitution that said that only the Baath Party would be the Government and choose the leader of the country. The 29 year rule by Hafez al-Assad , Bashar’s father and his own 12 years of rule has been sans civil liberties and compulsory drafting of young men for the army. While Hafez was an absolute authoritarian Bashar is seen as a liberal. Aware of the growing vocal dissent amongst his people and their desire for a less repressive regime he has moved towards reforms to usher in democracy albeit a controlled one. He has made changes in the Constitution which permits formation of political parties, a National council for the media and most importantly a Supreme Court. The removal of Clause 3 of the Constitution is extremely significant as it does away with the draconian emergency law in force since 1962 under which civilians could be detained without access to a trial. Assad’s regime has been notorious for disappearances of those who said a word against his government or the Baath party as well as human rights violations. A referendum in March saw 69 % votes in favour of the new Constitution and the term of the present Majlis Al Shaab (Parliament) was extended by a month or so to pass it. President Bashar has announced amnesty for those who had defied compulsory drafting in the military and escaped from the country.
So far 18 new political parties have been registered. There are about 10,000 candidates in the fray for the 250 seats. Of the candidates there are 710 women. The new Constitution provides one third seats for Independents as well as different sectors like farmers and women. “The ballot box is the future of Syria. The people’s response to the reforms will be in the ballot box” tells Vice Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad with excitement. Referring to the tight control exerted by the regime he says “we have made mistakes in Syria. But the first person to recognize this has been President Bashar Assad and he has tried to tackle the mistakes with reforms. But it takes time. America and the western powers along with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey don’t want to give us this time and opportunity”.
The elections will “open the door for change” in Syria feels the present Speaker of the Parliament Dr Alabrash. His optimism is infectious but change is obviously not coming in a hurry. The Baath Party is the only organized political party in Syria today. In a population of 22 million people (2008 census) the Baath party has over three and a half million members. It is expected to do well in the polls and that will be good news for its leader Bashar Assad. While the people in the streets right from taxi drivers, shopkeepers, students to women shoppers are looking forward to voting they are fully aware of the fear of candidates becoming targets of the anti-Assad armed gangs. The recent municipal elections in Damascus saw Rateb Adas the winner from Duma being shot seven times by armed rebels. “At least it is a beginning and we will go out to vote” told Hossum who sells olive soap and almond candy in the Hamedieh souk. He was echoing Minister Mekdad who said the coming elections “will ignite a process”.
As elections draw near there is a marked escalation in violence. It is no longer confined to pockets in Syria. Car bombs have taken lives in Damascus and Aleppo. This has made the Government tighten security. These two factors have instilled fear in the people who feel armed gangs can strike anywhere. The reforms and the prospect of the coming multi-party election have to a great extent contained the street dissent against Assad and his government which is presently led by a Baath party coalition. But there is one main factor that has got his people to put aside their discontent with the President and close ranks. Assad and his state machinery have convinced the people that Syria faces an external threat. From the man in the street to high government functionaries and religious heads all point out that while US, Western European countries and Israel are providing support to the conflict in international fora, weapons and money is being sent to armed militia by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Israel. The presence of Al Qaeda suicide bombers and Arab nationals in armed gangs is attributed to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia and Iraq. “We face an external threat not an internal one” says Mekdad. According to him the local opposition is against the militarization of Syria but it is fragmented. The biggest threat he says are the criminals, drug traders, smugglers and released prisoners who are being used by “outside powers” to kill civilians and attack the military. They are financed and armed by the Arab League countries. Then there is the “small but effective and lethal Al Qaeda elements” coming from Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. Another threat is the Muslim Brotherhood and the Istanbul Council though it has a negligible presence in Syria outlines Mekdad. “We the people of Syria want to decide our future. We will get our President to listen to us. He is trying to meet our demands. We want to be left alone by America, Israel and Qatar. Why are they interfering in our country”? asks Hala while her friends in a coffee house in Old Damascus nod vigourously in assent. Mekdad answers that by saying “we are the only country in the region that politically opposes Israel. If Syria collapses so will the Palestine cause”.
Drawing attention to tolerance for all religions in Syria and its secular credentials the Grand Mufti of Syria Dr Ahmed Bader Al Din Hassoum, respected as the senior most Sunni leader in the Region, says that some countries are pushing for sectarian strife in the country. “We accept a leader irrespective which religion he follows, who is just and gives the people the freedom to follow the religion of their choice”. He advocates a separation between religious parties and political ones and appreciates that the new constitution allows formation of a political party but not religious ones.
Even before the people of Syria vote the US stance is evident. Hillary Clinton has declared that if the Kofi Annan brokered peace plan and ceasefire does not stand Washington will go beyond tightening the economic squeeze on Syria through sanctions and press for Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter which allows for military intervention in country where peace is under threat cannot be ignored. Syria in turn is banking on continued support from Russia and China which have vetoes in the UNSC and used it to in the UN Security Council to block sanctions on Syria. Iran has been trying to help Syria beat the sanctions.
New Delhi supported the US and Arab League backed UN resolution against Damascus but pushed through amendments that rejected foreign interference in Syria and insisted on its sovereignty. However the March end BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in New Delhi, adopted the Delhi Declaration that says that a lasting solution in Syria can be only be found through dialogue against the Western approach of using sanctions to resolve complex global issues. Syria expects India as leader of BRICS to stay the course on this. Will the election give back Mary who runs a tea shop the Syria that “was one year ago”? It is a question that defies a simple answer because of the complex situation brought about by the play of internal and external factors in Syria, the cradle of civilization. (IPA Service)