Guest contributor, Ghaidaa Hetou, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA
Since the March 2011, demonstrators in the towns of Dar’a and Homs have voiced their longing for freedom, dignity, and justice. Syrians throughout the country, who took to the streets to demand change, have also voiced their awareness of and support for the unity of Syrian society, despite its ethnic and religious diversity. Hence the famous chant, “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one”.
The Syrian uprising, which initially took the form of peaceful demonstrations, has morphed over time into a crisis now resembling a civil war. Sectarianism seeped into the conflict as communities and citizens came to be targeted based on their ethnicity and religious sect. In a country as ethnically and confessionally diverse as Syria, this is a recipe for social breakdown and political chaos.
As the conflict spread, the anti-regime opposition has been subjected to the full force of the Syrian army as it launched an all out assault on armed groups, using helicopter gunships, jet fighters, and ground to ground missiles. In this ferocious attack,, innocent communities have not been spared the wrath of Bashar al-Asad’s Ba’thist regime. Two years of mutual destruction, fueled and prolonged by the interference of regional and international powers, have resulted in more that 60,000 dead, millions displaced internally, and thousands more forced to leave Syria and become refugees. Many Syrian towns and villages are no longer recognizable.
Neither side, whether the Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra,which dominant the armed opposition, or the Syrian military, is able to assert control and restore stability. A prolonged war of attrition, even if it resulted in one side militarily defeating the other, would constitute a Pyrrhic victory and ultimately would not serve anyone’s political goals. In short, the Syrian conflict is a lose/lose situation; if the violence continues, the cost in lives and infrastructure will be far too great.
Thus there is an urgent need for direct negotiations to begin between the al-Asad regime and the Syrian opposition to end the bloodshed, continued displacement of people from their homes and the senseless destruction of the country.
If there has been one benefit in the time that has passed since the opposition movement began in March 2011, it is a painful and incremental political maturing of the Syrian opposition. It is no exaggeration to say that hundred of thousands of Syrians have had to pay the price of the opposition movement’s political incompetence, fragmentation, and short sightedness.
Deterring the opposition from seeking negotiations has been the delusional demands for American military intervention, expectations of direct arms supply from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the unwarranted hope that Russia, China and Iran would withdraw their support of the Syrian regime. It is disgraceful, and a dishonor to the memories of those who have suffered and died , willingly or unwillingly, for the opposition to have prolonged the crisis when the writing is clearly on the wall, namely that a military victory will only lead to greater instability and perhaps even Syria's fragmentation, with all that implies for regional stability.
There is a long-term logic for negotiations to begin between the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition with minimum preconditions. With both sides agreeing to begin such discussions, perhaps outside Syria, an important precedent would be set, namely that solution-oriented discussions among situational adversaries is possible. Not only are they possible, but they offer the only way for Syrians to coexist in a non-coercive environment, for democratic governance to be institutionalized for the benefit of larger and more diverse segments of society, and to begin an inclusive dialogue of national reconciliation.
The social, political, and economic fabric of Syria is interwoven by daily and ongoing multi-ethnic and religious exchanges, political, economic and cultural. Disenfranchised communities in Idlib, Dar’a, Raqqa and Dayr al-Zur cannot flourish and benefit from future political reform and economic development if they are not integrated into and the benefactor of the diverse socio-economic reality that characterizes the rest of the country. From the time you leave your apartment in downtown Damascus to get coffee, a croissant and a newspaper, you necessarily run into, talk to, ask for and receive goods and services from all sectors of Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic society. The factory owner in Aleppo buys his material from, employs, and sells to most if not from all ethnic and religious groups in Syria. Clearly, Syrians stand or fall together.
Any attempt to institutionalize democratic practices, rehabilitate communities across the country, and start the rebuilding process, must begin with a meaningful attempt at dialogue, negotiation and compromise between the two sides at the top, however distasteful the respective leaders find this prospect to be. A glimmer of light may be evident in the recent offer of Shaykh Moaz al-Khatib, the highly respected leader of the National Coalition of Opposition Forces and the Syrian Revolution, to begin negotiations with the al-Asad regime. Ultimately, only the Syrians can solve the current crisis - yes, through a negotiation process among Syrians themselves.