By Hind Aboud Kabawat (Senior Research Analyst and Expert in Conflict Resolution, CRDC, George Mason University).

Damascus, Syria

May 20, 2011

Can our beloved Syria be saved from the brink of destruction? This is clearly the question on the minds of millions of our fellow countrymen (and countrywomen). And it is truly astonishing how quickly events have transformed the so-called “facts on the ground” in this country. One of the most locked-down societies in the Middle East quite suddenly erupted in rage, anger and frustration after forty years of political repression and economic stagnation. Just think of it: the first demonstration was on March 15, just a mere two months ago. But so much has changed in the minds, hearts and aspirations of the Syrian people that it is impossible to think that we can ever return to the status quo ante—the Syria of March 14th.

What the future will bring is hard to predict. But what everyone must understand, beginning with our President Bashar al-Assad, is there is no going back to “business-as-usual.” He, and his government, have to decide whether they want to be “partners” with the Syrian people in forging a new more open, more democratic, more accountable and transparent society, or whether they want to attempt to violently abort the overwhelming desire of the vast majority of the Syrian people for change—real change. That is the first question that has to be answered.

It is my sense that the vast “silent” majority of the Syrian people, including myself, would prefer that the President be such a “partner” in the transformation of our country, and we all believe in him. This is true, I believe, even after the events of the last few weeks—when state security forces unleashed terrible violence on the civilian population of this country, which was wrong as our President indicates. President Bashar al-Assad still retains the confidence and affection of vast sections of the public. I believe he still retains such trust, in many ways, for very practical and pragmatic reasons.

Most Syrians still believe that real political, social and economic change can be achieved much more peacefully, and with less social dislocation, if the President spearheads the reform process. Clearly all of us have seen what happens when political and social transformation comes as a consequence of violent “regime change”—to wit, Iraq, Libya, etc. But real change that is peaceful can only happen if the President and the Baath party want to be part of the solution to Syria’s problems—not part of the problem. And so far it is not clear that the President and his inner circle grasp the magnitude of what is happening on the Syrian street.

But let’s say the government does opt for the right course of action, what next? Well, initially, the government’s response to the protest movement seemed to bode well: the Emergency Law was lifted, the Prime Minister was sacked, and political prisoners were released. But then the government clearly panicked, and the “Iron fist” of the regime was again used against the people.

Such violence and intimidation may work, in the short term, but in the long term it will have disastrous consequences for Syria, most importantly but also for the President, and the apparatchiks of the government militias, and the Baath Party. The international community no longer tolerates the flagrant abuse of human rights and crimes against humanity.

So let’s unclench the iron fist, summon the militias back to their barracks, command the security to hold their fire, and begin to engage in a true national dialogue. There has been much talk, from all sides, about the importance of holding a national dialogue, of resolving conflicts, peacefully, but let us be frank, such words have mostly been hollow. In essence the government’s real strategy has been to ride out the protest movement by doing what this regime has always done: confront any opposition with intimidation and violence. And, perhaps with reason, many in the protest movement have determined there is no point engaging in dialogue with the Assad government. Perhaps each side has lost complete confidence in the other’s good faith. If that stalemate is to end, some measure of trust must be restored.

What can the government do? Well, I think the time has come and gone for false starts—and empty promises. If the government is going to restore any measure of trust with the Syrian people, they must outline a plan—a road map—for real political change.

For starters, most Syrians believe political reform is as important as economic reform. Then action must be taken quickly to open the political process to new political parties and permit the emergence of a vibrant civil society by actively encouraging the development of non-governmental organizations. All such initiatives and actions will help lay the groundwork for a “Constitutional Convention,” where all the major actors in this country’s political, social and economic infrastructure come together to write a new democratic constitution for this country. Clearly, the old rules don’t work, new ones must be written.

In due course, the President with other candidates will run for the presidency. Most probably our President will win and will be elected in free, open and transparent elections, so that Syria has a government and a political administration that freely expresses the will of the Syrian people.

Does this seem like an ambitious agenda? Maybe. But what is the alternative? Throwing good time after bad? More years of political repression, with a government enforcing its will by violence, coercion, intimidation and worse? As the historic Arab Spring of 2011 clearly demonstrates, the Arab people have crossed a serious political and cultural threshold. They want something different: governments which are accountable, an economy which delivers jobs and prosperity, and a society where people prosper on their merits, not because of whom they know in high places. Corruption must end; it is literally choking this country’s economy, undermining its future, and the well being of the next generation.

Can Syria, and the Syrian people, deliver on such an “agenda for change”? I passionately believe they can. This country has endured much hardship over the last four decades. But other countries, which have endured far worse, have transformed themselves for the better.

Think of South Africa. When the Apartheid regime ended, many expected a race war between whites and blacks, with much murder and mayhem. But South Africa was blessed with the leadership of a great man in the form of Nelson Mandela. Instead of engaging in revenge and retaliation against his former enemies and tormentors, he extended an olive branch and established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Quite amazingly, South Africa replaced a brutal, repressive and racist regime with a democratic one—with relative ease. If they can do it, why can’t we? The divisions in South African society—between blacks and white, Anglos and Boers, the Zulus and the other tribes—were arguably more profound than those in Syria. But Mandela knew that the first order of business was FORGIVENESS. No change would succeed without it. And, more importantly, Nelson Mandela believed that he could accomplish his historic and very difficult task as the first truly democratic president of his country.  Could  President Bashar al-Assad be Syria’s Nelson Mandela?

I still believe in my President and his profound love of Syria, and my answer will be, Yes he can.

© Marc Gopin