Brian Whitaker writes: From Monday no one will be tortured in Syria. The state will guarantee personal freedom for its citizens and preserve their dignity and security. People’s homes will be inviolable. Everyone will have the right to express opinions freely and openly, and the state will guarantee the freedom and independence of the press.
At least, that is what is supposed to happen if President Assad gets a yes vote today in his referendum on the new constitution. It’s meant to show Syrians – and the rest of the world – that Assad, in the midst of turmoil, is steadily and calmly pressing ahead with “reforms”.
Hardly anyone is convinced, though. The contrast with what is happening on the ground – and internationally – lends an air of unreality to the new constitution and its accompanying referendum. As the multinational Friends of Syria group gathered in Tunis on Friday to discuss ways of toppling the regime, the regime itself was blithely preparing to announce that for the convenience of voters the number of polling stations in Syria would be increased from 13,835 to 14,185.
But if Assad is whistling into the wind, so too are the Friends of Syria. They are divided over what to do – mainly because there is no course of action, apart from further isolation of the Assad regime, that doesn’t carry a serious risk of making matters worse.
At the meeting in Tunis on Friday, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had little to offer beyond $10m in humanitarian aid for Syrians and the words: “We cannot let them down.” She also predicted an internal coup. That would conveniently relieve the Americans of their what-to-do-about-Assad dilemma – though, as we have seen in Egypt, it wouldn’t necessarily bring deliverance to Syrians.
For Britain, the foreign secretary, William Hague, has vowed to keep “tightening the diplomatic and economic stranglehold on the regime” while more or less ruling out military action. It may not seem much – especially to those under rocket fire in Homs – but it might do a bit of good and, more important, it’s unlikely to do much harm.
What we should fear most is not western military intervention, since it isn’t in prospect, but eastern intervention. There is something surreal about a group of “friends” promoting change in Syria that includes so many autocrats and, as one of its leading lights, the country most notorious for resisting progress: Saudi Arabia. [Continue reading…]