Both Assad supporters and opponents are not as homogeneous as they are said to be, and both hold deeply held beliefs about the “other side,” but only the protesters have so far shown demonstrable willingness to rise above their prejudice and reach out to the other side. Assad supporters have responded by lies, accusations, and mindless violence.
The Assads do have supporters on the ground, after all the protesters are not killing themselves. But, and while the majority of the supporters of the Assads come from an Alawite, Christian, Druze and Ismailite background, not all members of these communities are in agreement with the Assads and many have been part of this Revolution since the beginning.
On the other hand, the Assad support base include a significant Sunni component whose membership is not only derived from the ranks of the Sunni commercial elite and the upper middle class, but also from the ranks of poorer urban and rural classes whose family members are connected one way or another to the Assads’ large security apparatus, and Baath institutions.
In theory, these communal intersections between the supporters and opponents of the Assads should facilitate dialog and negotiations at some point, but now is clearly not the time for that.
To be clear, the Assads can never be part of any dialog. Theirs has always been an all-or-nothing approach, which makes them unable to offer anything of substance to the protesters. Moreover, the Assads don’t seem to have reached the stage yet where they may be willing to negotiate an exit strategy for themselves. They still believe, it seems, as do their supporters, that they can somehow contain and survive the Revolution with little change. Current developments reflect continued commitment to this mentality. The Assads can never be part of any solution.
But there cannot be a solution, one that can help us avoid significant bloodshed, without successfully reaching out to the Assad support base.
The problem here is that if top military general and security chiefs have shown themselves to be too far gone to be promising candidates for a successful outreach effort, the civilian component does not seem that promising either, at least at this stage.
Indeed, there is a certain level of paranoia and denial within the ranks of Assads’ supporters that leaves little room for any kind of dialog or outreach, again at this stage. They keep seeing networks of Salafists and terrorists springing up all over Syria leading to the establishment of one Kandahar after another, when the only evidence in this regard is the verbal assertions of regime propagandists and inflammatory reports on state-run media. Regional and international news networks that provide evidence to the contrary, evidence that highlights regime brutality and the peaceful nature of the Revolution, are seen as part of an ongoing conspiracy, and their evidence is ignored.
Even Assad supporters living in the West and who have access to reportage by known western journalists like Anthony Shadid among others, who actually managed to visit Hama City, walked down its streets and talked to its residents and protest leaders, chalk off the observations of these people on the peaceful nature of the protest movement as part of the international conspiracy or as reflection of the naivety of the journalists involved.
Furthermore, signs of religiosity among the protesters are taken as evidence of extremism, and the rural appearance of some as evidence of backwardness and lack of readiness for democracy. Meanwhile, most Assad supporters, especially those who joined the army or security forces or became members of the proliferating pro-Assad militias, themselves come from a rural background and are no less religiously observant than the protesters, as evidenced by the jewelry and/or tattoos they wear: the crosses, the Allah engraving and the mini forked swords (a Shiite and Alawite religious symbol). Religiosity is simply not the exclusive domain of the Sunnis in Syria.
How can rational dialog take place in these conditions? What sort of guarantees can be offered to change this mentality? What sort of statements and/or actions can the protesters offer to appease the fear and worries involved? Assad supporters seem to be currently cruising on a “cut down the tall trees” mode, it’s pretty much doubtful that they will stop for a serious rational chat anytime soon. So long as they cling to the belief that the Revolution can and should be crushed, and that Assad should be in charge of whatever “reform” process to take place, they leave little room for dialog or even negotiations.
Religious and sectarian prejudice is deeply ingrained in our culture, this is something that no one can deny. And yes, both protesters and supporters, irrespective of their particular religious sectarian backgrounds, are guilty in this regard. But the protesters have been trying to rise above theirs since the beginning of the Revolution. The discourse of some of their “spokespeople” might occasionally fall short of the slogans of national unity they raise, a shortcoming characteristic of such nascent movements and which at this stage also comes as a reaction to the ongoing brutal crackdown and the lies and provocations that come with it, but the preponderance of their actions come as a reflection of a sincere desire to build something new and inclusive.
Their efforts at outreach, however, are unlikely to have the desired effects at this stage. It is only when the regime is at the very point of collapse that we can hope to begin negotiating and dialoging with the other side, because only then some might be willing to listen, driven by the same existential angst that is being manipulated by the Assads today and channeled into the current crackdown.
Right now, the focus of the protesters should be on winning, and that, in large part, calls for keeping their activities peaceful. With increasing violence on part of the Assads and their supporters and loyalists, and increasing attempts by fringe elements to push for retributions, protest leaders have their work cut out for them.
The focus on winning, however, does not preclude the need for enunciating a vision for an inclusive tomorrow and coming out with a plan for the transitional period, seeing that our ability to acquire international legitimacy and to successfully reach out to that important segment of the population that remains silent seems to hinge on this.
At the end of the day, however, it seems quite probable that the Assads will have some diehard supporters who will fight for them to the end. While so many are focused on the potential drive for retribution on part the revolutionaries, it is more than likely that these diehard elements, who are responsible for the preponderance of the violence today, will be the ones to seek retributions tomorrow when their cause is lost, after all they are the better organized and armed side, and the brainwashed ones whose paranoia is fueling the current mayhem.