Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Compromise possible in Syria

By Zhang Zhouxiang (China Daily) Updated: 2012-02-28 08:15

On Sunday Syria held a referendum on a new constitution that proposes a multi-party parliamentary election within three months and a presidential limit of two seven-year terms. However, several opposition groups refused to participate in the referendum.

Despite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad calling the referendum a reform initiative, the West does not believe he is genuinely willing to introduce reforms. Just hours after the referendum was announced, White House spokesman Jay Carney described it as "quite laughable" and said it "makes a mockery of the Syrian revolution".

"The referendum in Syria is nothing more than a farce. Sham votes cannot be a contribution to a resolution of the crisis. Assad must finally end the violence and clear the way for a political transition," said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

Obviously there is a great gap between the Syrian government and the Western countries the Syrian opposition forces are relying on, said Hua Liming, a former ambassador to Iran and now a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies.

"The reforms promised in the draft, namely political pluralism, direct election of the president, and a seven-year presidential term with a maximum of two terms, are just what opposition groups demanded ten months ago," Hua told China Daily. "But the Western countries are no longer interested in them. What they want now is to force Assad to step down."

The US' tough stance against the Syrian government serves its Middle East strategy, said Wang Jinglie, a researcher on Middle East studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who said that the US hopes to "make a Middle East of its own design" by selectively intervening in the "democracy" movements in the region.

The West is clearly not really concerned about democracy as the US keeps close relations with the monarchy of Saudi Arabia and considers the Republic of Iran an enemy.

The US' plan is to kill two birds with one stone, especially as its Western allies will support it. "Unlike Libya and Iran, Syria exports little oil and a war will hardly hurt European countries' interests," Wang said.

Hua said that since Syria is Iran's only ally in the region, a pro-US Syria will enable the US to turn its attention to Iran. "By highly pressuring the Assad regime in Syria, the US wants to create a dilemma for Iran," Hua said, "Iran will either get involved, thus offering the excuse for a fight, or stand idle and watch the fall of its only ally."

Syria and Iran are both led by Shiite Muslims and are isolated from their Sunni-led neighbors.

Therefore the Western countries have actually left Assad little choice other than abdication. Even handing over the reins of power to his vice-president would not be accepted by the Western countries, because "the US and its allies want to totally overthrow the rule of the Assad family," said Li Zhiyong, a researcher on international politics from the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics.

But the possibility of the Assad family voluntarily giving up what it has accumulated over many decades is very small, because it still has a great deal of public support. According to a recent survey, 60 percent of the Syrian people still support Assad and the government still controls the military.

Therefore there is a real danger of a long-lasting civil war in Syria, said Hua. "If Western powers intervene they could make Syria another Libya, but with possibly even greater loss of life as its population density is much higher than Libya's."

The best way to realize a peaceful change without bloodshed is compromise, said Li.

Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general who has been appointed the UN and Arab League's envoy to Syria, called for all parties to cooperate in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.

At the "Friends of Syria" conference on Friday, "the leading League of Arab States called for Assad to step down. But they also opposed military intervention as well, which made even some Western delegates retreat from the meeting. That makes negotiation and compromise possible," said Li.

Together with tougher economic sanctions and recognition of the opposition Syrian National Council, the final statement of the conference also called for a halt to the violence and peacekeeping mission in Syria.

It said humanitarian aid was needed for those areas had seen the worst of the fighting and the UN and Arab League should send in a joint peacekeeping force made up of civilian police officers with the permission of the ruling authority in Syria.

"That would be a key step toward preventing the situation from worsening," said Li. "But that requires the United Nations and the Arab League cooperate."

(China Daily 02/28/2012 page9)

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