The “national dialogue” conference that was held in Damascus and boycotted by a number of Syrian [political] opposition figures reminds us of the critical stage in Egypt which preceded the announcement that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was stepping down. At the time, General Omar Suleiman was in the process of conducting dialogue with the forces of the Egyptian opposition in order to salvage the situation, but it was too late for dialogue and the Egyptian street had raised its ceiling of demands, whilst the negotiators did not represents him [Mubarak], and the only word that could be heard [from the protestors] was “leave”. Thus the head of the regime was forced to step down.
In Damascus, the man leading the dialogue is Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, whilst in Cairo [during the revolution] it was also the Vice President, Omar Suleiman who led the dialogue. The difference is that al-Sharaa is a longstanding vice president whilst Omar Suleiman was only appointed to this position during the crisis as a sign of the regime’s willingness to transfer power after a few months, ruling out the scenario of power being bequeathed from father to son, which is what happened in Syria years ago.
The general similarities do not mean we are now facing a similar scenario [in Syria]; the conditions on the ground are completely different. The Egyptian street was protected by the army, which stood with them, and so the presidency came under the joint pressure of the Egyptian street and army. Meanwhile, only the “thugs” stood with the presidency. As for Syria, the Shabiha (Syria’s equivalent thugs) are working with the military forces to suppress the protestors. Gunfire continues to be heard in Syrian cities that are facing government suppression even whilst this national dialogue was taking place. This precise sentiment was expressed by one of the [Syrian] figures participating in the national dialogue, Syrian intellectual al-Tayeb Tizini.
However, the Syrians watched this national dialogue conference live on their television screens. They watched a national dialogue conference taking place in their own country and in which criticism was directed at the regime and calls were made for the dismantling of the police state, which represents an unprecedented event for the Syrians. If this had occurred four months ago it would have been a revolution in itself, but this is no longer considered as momentous after half a million people took to the streets in the city of Hama on Friday to chant “no to dialogue”.
At the national dialogue conference, al-Sharaa issued a statement that deserves attention. He acknowledged that were it not for the great sacrifices made by the Syrian people in many cities then this meeting would never have taken place, and I do not imagine – in this case – that he was alluding to the regime’s repeated claims of security officers being shot dead by armed gangs! He also stated that the conference represented the beginning of a national dialogue which will lead Syria to transition into a pluralistic, democratic state, in which all citizens are equal.
If we momentarily ignore al-Sharaa’s previous rhetoric about putting an end to the unauthorized demonstrations because they cause unjustified violence – a statement which reflected his status as one of the regime’s longstanding, principal figures – then the first part of his recent speech represents an acknowledgement of the demands of the Syrian street, who are seeking to end the Baathist party’s monopolization of power and obtain freedom. Yet the problem is that al-Sharaa is several months too late! Such talk could have resolved the crisis during its early stages, however after the deaths of 1,500 people, and thousands more detained, it is extremely difficult to calm the street, persuade it to participate in dialogue, and shoulder its responsibility – in the words of [Syrian presidential adviser] Bouthaina Shaaban at the national dialogue conference. Yet the regime needs to shoulder its responsibility if it wants to convince the Syrian street, and it must sacrifice some of its most hated symbols in order to convince the people that there has been a change. If al-Sharaa is the one who will lead the national dialogue, then the Syrian street must feel that he is a man who has genuine authority, and is not just a representative of the president. Of course, what is most important is government troops withdrawing from the cities where protests are taking place, as well as putting an end to the killing and the bloody suppression. We have seen examples of this suppression recently, such as one advocate of the revolution in Hama, Ibrahim Qashoosh, being found with his throat cut [by the security services], according to opposition websites.
We do not know whether there are voices who think differently within the regime in Syria, for it is a closed regime. Nevertheless, there are indications of an internal conflict, such as the former Governor of Hama who was sacked, and al-Sharaa’s words which explicitly recognize the failure of the security solution, and acknowledge that the blood and sacrifices of the protestors had imposed this national dialogue towards a pluralistic state.
The problem is that a “rescue operation” occurring in the final moments – following the collapse of the security solution – will not achieve anything unless this is on the same scale as the crisis, and takes place in a quick and decisive manner. The crisis of confidence [between the Syrian street and the government] has now become grave, and the saying now is “half revolution is like digging your own grave”. In Egypt, Omar Suleiman tried – in the final moments – to salvage the situation and failed, whilst in Syria there is no reason to believe that the dialogue attempts will be any different.