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Published On: Thu, May 1st, 2014

Al Assad is overplaying his hand this time

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Al-AssadSyrian President, Abbas al Assad will put himself forward as the candidate of his ruling Baath party in the June 3 presidential election, the speaker of parliament announced last week. Al Assad is going for a third term of seven years, having already spent 14 years in office. He succeeded his late father in 2002.

He will be up against 10 other contenders, representing different opposition parties, but al Assad is expected to win handsomely because the poll will hold only in parts of the country controlled by the government. A swathe of territory is in opposition hands, and the election will not hold here that will present a legitimacy problem for al Assad if he wins.

Syria is in a third year of a civil war which has seen some 150, 000 killed and nearly a million refugees streaming across Syria’s borders into neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Under normal circumstances, an election would be al Assad’s to lose.

His party is too well entrenched for a splintered opposition to overthrow through the ballot. Besides, in spite of his alleged dictatorial nature, including his intolerance of dissent within his governing party, al Assad has given Syrians a standard of living higher than even in the oil rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The

literacy level is the envy of other Arab League members.

But Syria’s problem is that political participation is not all inclusive. It is to be expected that a growing middle class which a healthy national economy has fawned will soon demand greater political right. But this is something al Assad is not ready to concede easily. He wants a perpetuation of the Assad dynasty!

Regrettably, the syrian political opposition is just as stubborn as the regime in Damascus. It does not want to give Assad any soft landing, insisting on a future Syria without a place for a role for him. Several times it has rebuffed an invitation by the president for talks on forming an all inclusive government.

The basis of the opposition’s refusal to hold talks with Assad, until now, was its belief that the west, sympathetic to their cause, would support them with weapons, if not troops, to overthrow the regime militarily. In three years this has not happened.

In truth, the opposition was surprisingly naive. The west certainly wanted a regime change in Syria but it would not get involved in the country’s ‘civil war’ (Assad does not believe he is fighting civil war but a bunch of terrorists). Secondly, the opposition is so divided that even if the west wanted to get involved in the Syrian crisis on the side which faction would it do so?

That is not the only dilemma of the west over the Syrian conflict. It has Russia, a strong Damascus ally, to contend with. Russia had the veto in the UN security Council whose endorsement NATO must obtain to get militarily involved in Syria. Russia is bound to oppose an application if one is made.

Fortunately, this wariness on the west’s part appears to have paid off. Damascus, with Russian promptings, agreed last year for an international team to investigate allegations that it used chemical weapons to massacre defenceless civilians in the capital. The Assad regime also agreed to sit with the opposition at the roundtable to talk peace. Regrettably, two rounds of talks, supervised by a UN appointed negotiator, have not produced any breakthrough. Both sides are digging in their heels.

We believe that this window of opportunity on achieving genuine national reconciliation must not be closed by unnecessary brinkmanship. This will be helped greatly by Assad agreeing to put the presidential election on hold, at least, for the rest of this year. It is within his powers to do so and he should!

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