The third roadblock that Assad has placed in the way of any real political opposition is the manner in which a party must be certified. Bounni pointed out that a party cannot be legalized unless a committee made up of the interior minister, a judge, and three other members appointed by the president give their assent. This, for all practical purposes, means that few, if any, parties will be allowed to function.
Elliot Abrams, whose experience in government goes back to the Reagan administration, was contemptuous of Assad’s reform efforts. He referred to the “unrivaled standard of hypocrisy” by Assad in this instance being “prizewinning.” He quotes a Reuters dispatch on the government’s stipulation that the new parties must have “a commitment to the constitution, democratic principles, the rule of law and a respect for freedom and basic rights.” Abrams writes, “Of course, were parties in Syria actually required to be committed to democracy and human rights, much less the rule of law, the Baath Party itself would be viewed–accurately–as a criminal organization.”
Reaction inside Syria was even more dismissive. Louay Hussein, a prominent opposition figure, made it clear that the situation had gone far beyond any feeble attempt by Assad to placate protesters. “Our struggle with the authorities is not over laws. It is a struggle over freedoms,” said Hussein. He added, “A new law is not going to stop the government from violating our personal and political freedoms. So that law does not really have any significance.” Another activist said that the law was a “non-starter” despite the fact that he and his cohorts wouldn’t have dreamed of such a reform before the uprising began. It is one more indication that Assad’s cruelty, rather than tamping down the protests by putting fear in the hearts of ordinary people, has upped the ante for regime opponents, who now see the only solution as Assad stepping down.
With Ramadan approaching next month — a time when mosque attendance is at yearly high on a daily basis — the protests appear ready to enter a new phase. Assad is hampered by having only two truly reliable military units: his Republican Guards and the 4th Armored Division commanded by his brother. But the protests are taking place in dozens of cities and towns at once, stretching his loyalist forces while forcing him to use his far less reliable conscript army in most protest venues. The local coordination committees report regular defections from these units, despite brutal discipline enforced by Assad’s black-shirted Alawite militia, the shabbiha, which has been known to shoot soldiers who refuse to carry out orders to fire into the crowds of demonstrators.
While these defections and widespread opposition show erosion in Assad’s support since the protests began in April, the opposition has yet to find a soft spot that would really pressure Assad to either grant real reforms that would transform Syria or force him from power. There are signs that Assad may be trying to foment sectarian strife by raising the specter of a Sunni takeover if he were to step down. But the majority of Syrians appear to be unconvinced and refuse to be manipulated.
Western sanctions on Assad and individuals in his regime have done little to curb the dictator’s bloodlust. But the UN may be ready to take significant action against the dictator. Edward Luck and Joseph Deng, UN special advisers on the prevention of genocide and the responsibility to protect, believe there is a “serious possibility” that Assad has committed crimes against humanity. In a statement released on Monday, the officials report that there is the likelihood that the security forces are deliberately targeting civilian protesters, “killing them and arbitrarily arresting residents, often from their homes.” If they were to recommend the formal process of considering war crimes against the regime by the Security Council, it would make Assad even more of a pariah than he is now, and probably spur additional sanctions against him and individuals in his government.
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