Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's unrelenting military offensive against rebel-held areas suggests that his regime is basing its survival on repression rather than reform, despite his promise of a referendum next week on a new constitution that could reshape domestic politics, say analysts.
“Assad has nowhere to go but forward, the military solution is his only option,” says Bilal Saab, a Middle East security expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. “He may not survive at the end of the day, but he is surely not going down without a fight.”
Syria is undergoing its worst period of violence since the uprising began 11 months ago. The rebel stronghold of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, and other towns in the northern Idlib province, near Damascus, and in the south have suffered tank and mortar bombardments.
Casualty figures have soared, on occasion reportedly reaching more than 100 in a single day. The attacks and ambushes waged by the various ad hoc battalions that comprise the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) are shaping the narrative of the opposition struggle, overshadowing peaceful protest marches, and marginalizing to some extent the external political opposition groups.
The timing of the regime’s intensified crackdown coincides with a diplomatic impasse following the recent failure of the United Nations Security Council to agree on a resolution condemning the violence in Syria. The resolution, which won 13 of the 15 Security Council votes, was vetoed by Russia and China.
“[Mr. Assad] believes he has Russian backing for what the regime calls the ‘security solution’ alongside a series of procedural changes to the constitution that he wants people to buy onto as reform,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Feb. 26 referendum
Syria announced yesterday that a referendum will be held on Feb. 26 for a new constitution that would make some striking changes if passed and fully implemented. The proposed new constitution would abolish Article 8, which enshrines Baath Party rule, thereby opening the system to multiparty politics.
However, political parties based on ethnicity and religion are banned, which means that Kurdish groups or the Muslim Brotherhood would not be permitted to stand for elections. The presidency would be reserved for a Muslim male who could serve a maximum of two seven-year terms in office.
Assad was quoted as saying that the new constitution was the “most important stage of reforms,” one that promised a “brilliant future for next generations."
The referendum is the latest in a series of promised reforms unveiled since the unrest began last March. Previous reform initiatives include abolishing state security courts and lifting the draconian emergency law in place since 1963, when the Baath Party seized power in a coup. But other promised reforms have failed to materialize.
Opposition groups have scorned the promise of a new constitution, vowing to boycott the referendum and declaring that it is too late for a reform process.
The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activist group based in Syria, called on Syrians to “reject and boycott the alleged referendum to confirm the lack of public support for this criminal regime.”
It was also unclear how a referendum could be organized amid the turmoil gripping much of the country.
Push for a UN peacekeeping force
Despite Assad pursuing an intensified crackdown against opposition hubs, he cannot completely ignore Syria’s near-total diplomatic isolation and the fears of his Syrian supporters on the future stability of the country. Announcing the referendum not only keeps alive the semblance of a political process to end the crisis, it also helps maintain the support of Syria allies Russia and China.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the referendum, saying “we certainly believe a new constitution to end one-party rule in Syria is a step forward.”
But Russia and China are lone voices of international support in the United Nations Security Council for Assad’s beleaguered regime. Since the vetoing of the UN Security Council resolution on Feb. 4, the West and its Arab allies have mulled a range of alternative actions to help resolve the crisis.
On Sunday, the Arab League formally recognized the Syrian opposition and requested that the UN Security Council deploy a peacekeeping force to Syria. But it is unlikely that the Assad regime would accept the presence of UN peacekeepers on Syrian soil.
Other options include providing logistical support to the FSA, such as intelligence information, communications equipment, weapons, and ammunition, to help the fledgling force mount a campaign of attrition to wear down the Syrian army.
But the FSA operates in a largely autonomous and localized fashion and lacks a coherent system of command and control. Furthermore, smuggling sizable quantities of arms and communications equipment into Syria to reach isolated FSA battalions would present significant difficulties, analysts and diplomats say.
On Thursday, the European parliament passed a resolution urging member states to close their embassies in Damascus and to launch talks on setting up humanitarian corridors along Syria’s borders.
With a Libya-style military intervention having been ruled out by the US and Europe, the notion of setting up humanitarian corridors is seen as something of a half-way step: It theoretically would allow aid to reach desperate Syrian civilians but falls short of a full military intervention.
The devil, however, lies in the details. The Assad regime would probably reject the establishment of one or more humanitarian corridors on Syrian territory, claiming they breach national sovereignty. That would require external armed support to protect the enclave from potential attack by the Syrian army, leading inadvertently to a military intervention, analysts and diplomats say.
'Friends of Syria meeting next week
Meanwhile, the international community is pinning hopes for fresh ideas on a “Friends of Syria” meeting on Feb. 24 hosted by Tunisia. The meeting will bring together disparate opposition groups and individuals, Arab states, Turkey, the European Union, and the US. But Syria risks sliding deeper into violence the longer the world dithers about how to handle the crisis.
“Assad’s bet, which he has made for eleven months, is that the opposition tires of getting killed and will succumb to his changes as the best deal,” says Mr. Tablet, author of a recent book on Syria under Assad's presidency. “Only problem for Assad is … the protesters continue to come out on the streets. They know that these 'reforms' will not change the way the minority regime runs the country.”