Assad offers no room for negotiation

Reuters reports: A defiant President Bashar al-Assad called on Sunday for national mobilization in a “war to defend the nation”, describing rebels fighting him as terrorists and agents of foreign powers with whom it was impossible to negotiate.

Appearing in an opera house in central Damascus packed with cheering supporters, the Syrian leader delivered his first speech to an audience since June last year, and his first public comments since a television interview in November.

He unveiled what he described as a peace initiative to end the 21-month-old uprising. But the proposal, including a reconciliation conference that would exclude “those who have betrayed Syria”, was certain to be rejected by enemies who have already said they will not negotiate unless he leaves power.

He spoke confidently for about an hour before a crowd of cheering loyalists, who occasionally interrupted him to shout and applaud, at one point raising their fists and chanting: “With blood and soul we sacrifice for you, O Bashar!”

At the end of the speech, supporters rushed to the stage, mobbing him and shouting: “God, Syria and Bashar is enough!” as a smiling Assad waved and was escorted from the hall.

“We are now in a state of war in every sense of the word,” Assad said in the speech. “This war targets Syria using a handful of Syrians and many foreigners. Thus, this is a war to defend the nation.”

A few days ago, Charles Glass wrote: The rebels, with the concurrence of their outside backers in Riyadh, Doha, Ankara and Washington, have steadfastly rejected jaw-jaw in favour of war-war. The leader of the newly created Syrian National Coalition, Moaz Al Khatib, rejected the latest call by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Sergei Lavrov to attend talks with the Syrian government. Mr Al Khatib insists that Bashar Al Assad step down as a precondition to talks, but surely Mr Al Assad’s future is one of the main points for discussion.

The rebels, over whom Mr Al Khatib has no control, have not been able to defeat Mr Al Assad in almost two years of battle. Stalemate on the battlefield argues for negotiation to break the impasse through acceptance of a transition to something new. Is it worth killing another 50,000 Syrians to keep Mr Al Assad out of a transition that will lead to his departure?

When the First World War ended with nearly 9 million soldiers killed and European civilisation poised for the barbarity of Nazism, the struggle did not justify the loss. The bloody aftermath was little better. [Stefan] Zweig wrote: “For we believed – and the whole world believed with us – that this had been the war to end all wars, that the beast which had been laying our world waste was tamed or even slaughtered. We believed in President Woodrow Wilson’s grand programme, which was ours too; we saw the faint light of dawn in the east in those days, when the Russian Revolution was still in its honeymoon period of humane ideals. We were foolish, I know.”

Are those who push the Syrians to fight and fight, rather than to face one another over the negotiating table, any less foolish?

At this point, to look at the war in Syria and say, it must stop, a negotiated end must be found, is nothing more than an ineffectual sentiment. It is a way of saying war is terrible and can bring no good.

Indeed — but that observation will do nothing to hasten the end of the fighting.

The adversaries must face each other over the negotiating table. OK. But when during the last two years has the Assad regime shown the slightest interest in negotiation?

Assad’s line has always been that he is up against an effort by foreign powers to take over Syria. He asserts that this is a war for the defense of the nation. He denies the existence of a revolution.

Assad’s offer of a peace initiative and a reconciliation conference is a vacuous gesture since he would exclude the very people he is fighting against. To portray his opponents and their backers as obstinate — as Glass does — is itself a willful denial of the regime’s own intransigence.

All that Assad promises now is what his armed forces have delivered relentlessly for the last two years: more bloodshed.

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