The beleaguered Syrian authorities are seeking negotiations with opposition leaders to end six weeks of unprecedented street protests that threaten to topple the Assad regime, according to Western diplomatic sources. They say that Bouthaina Shaaban, a top adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, has been placed in charge of exploring ways to launch a dialogue.
But amid a harsh crackdown on protesters, a rising death toll, and reports of thousands of people detained and missing, the regime is struggling to find anyone in the opposition who wants to talk.
“We say no to negotiations, at least until the secret police are gone from Syria. And when the secret police goes, then the regime will go as well,” says Rami Nakhle, a Syrian opposition activist in Beirut.
'There is no one who can speak on behalf of the opposition'
A European ambassador in Damascus says that the hard-line elements in the regime appeared to have the upper hand for now in attempting to suppress the uprising by force.
“There are some [members of the regime] who want to talk to the opposition, but they keep telling us they have no one to talk to,” the ambassador says.
The opposition has no credible, publicly visible figurehead or leadership group that can appeal across Syria’s complicated sectarian and ethnic divides.
Opposition leaders consist mainly of aging secular intellectuals, exiled former members of the Assad regime and Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood, and young, technologically savvy activists who are using social networking sites to mobilize and publicize the protest movement.
“There is no one in Syria who can speak on behalf of the opposition and this is better for us,” says Mr. Nakle, the opposition activist. “There is no point in negotiating with these people.”
Assad's rule marked by 'incompetence' – diplomat
When protests erupted in mid-March, the demands were restricted to political and economic freedoms rather than regime change. But the demands hardened as the regime balked at offering meaningful concessions and the security forces attempted to disperse crowds of protesters by shooting at them.
“The lack of an opposition leadership to talk to the regime means that those in the regime who want to use force will carry the day,” the European ambassador said.
A Western diplomat familiar with the Syrian leadership said that the Assad regime had made “every mistake possible” in handling the protests.
“When the full story about all this is written, maybe in two or three years, the one word that will sum up the last 11 years of Assad rule is incompetence,” the diplomat said.
As many as 8,000 arbitrarily detained or missing
In the southern town of Deraa, the epicenter of the uprising, at least 817 people have been detained or are missing since Syrian security forces imposed a siege last week, according to Wissam Tarif, a Syrian opposition activist. Males between the ages of 18 and 40 reportedly have been rounded up for interrogation in the town’s sports stadium.
Mr. Tarif says that the number of arbitrarily detained and disappeared people across the country “easily exceeds 8,000.”
“The total number of detainees we have verified is 2,843,” he says. “Nevertheless, we have 5,157 names that we are still working at and we simply lack resources and the protocol requires us to contact at least one family member.”
The Syrian Days of Rage Facebook page, a forum for the protest movement, claimed that security forces transported 244 bodies over the weekend from Deraa to the Tishreen hospital in Damascus. Citing “a very authoritative medical source,” it added that 81 dead soldiers also were transported from Deraa, showing wounds that suggested they had been shot by their fellow soldiers.
The Syrian authorities say that the soldiers are being killed by “armed gangs” and “terrorists.” However, there are growing reports of soldiers being executed for refusing to open fire on protesters. Given the reporting restrictions inside Syria, it is impossible to verify the accuracy of the claims by either side.