Widespread cynicism greeted the news that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to an Arab League proposal to end violence and begin a dialogue with representatives of Syria’s opposition movement.
The opposition has been staging widespread protests and enduring deadly attacks for more than seven months.
“Bashar is a liar,” said Sami, a 48-year-old graphic designer in this Syrian Druze community of 10,000 on the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967. “He even lies about his lying.”
Sami, a proud Syrian, would not give his last name. “The long arm of the dictatorship can reach even to here,” he said.
“The regime is just stalling for time,” says Salman Fakhreddin, a political activist with Al-Marsad, the Arab Center for Human Rights in the Golan. “There’s no way Assad will go through with the deal.”
Outside the Arab League’s Cairo headquarters, a group of Syrian protesters chanted “No dialogue. Leave, Bashar,” the position officially endorsed by the recently formed Syrian National Council, an opposition group made up mostly of Syrian expatriates.
“Bashar just wants to reduce international pressure while he continues the same practices that have killed almost 600 people in the past two weeks,” said Khaled Saleh, an SNC member and board member of the Syrian American Council. “If he’s really sincere, then he must show it by not attacking any of the protests starting tomorrow [Thursday]”
The Syrian-based opposition leadership has called for extra-large demonstrations on Thursday. “Bashar has to take the first step,” Mr. Saleh added.
The deal announced yesterday at Arab League headquarters calls for a complete halt to violence against protesters, the release of prisoners jailed for their involvement in the protests, the granting of access to the Arab League and international journalists, and participation in the Arab League mediation efforts aimed at starting a dialogue between Syrian officials and representatives of the opposition groups.
“The Syrian delegation accepted the Arab League plan without reservations and in its entirety,” a League official said.
“A big sticking point that isn’t included is the venue of any dialogue,” Mr. Fakhreddin said. “Even if the opposition agreed to talk, there’s no way they would agree to meet inside Syria. The regime simply couldn’t guarantee their safety. I think Cairo would be the best location.”
Demonstrations against the regime and in favour of democracy began in mid-March in the south of the country; the killing of demonstrators shortly after. More than 3,000 people have been killed in the seven months since then, Syrian human rights organizations say. The Assad regime says its forces have largely been responding to an armed insurgency.
Even as the deal was announced Wednesday, some 20 protesters were reportedly killed, including 11 in a particularly gruesome attack in the central Syrian city of Homs. Video shot at the scene showed people with their hands bound behind their backs, facing a wall. They appeared to have been shot in the back of the head.
As well, 15 members of the Syrian security forces were reported killed, apparently by soldiers who defected from the army to join the opposition.
People in this bustling Druze community at the base of Mount Hermon, about 40 kilometres from Damascus, have gone through a metamorphosis this year. In April, it was hard to find anyone who didn’t think Mr. al-Assad was the best man to bring reforms to Syria. Members of a minority community such as the Druze, like Christians and Alawites, expressed concern over what might happen to them should a Sunni Islamist regime ever come to power.
By June, a few dissenting voices could be heard; now, a substantial number are voicing their opposition to the Assad regime.
“People are no longer as afraid as they were at the beginning,” said Rania, 26, an office worker, who declined to give her family name for fear of retribution. She said she hopes that any dialogue will include Mr. al-Assad leaving office.
“Agreeing to this deal does not mean Bashar is willing to step down,” said Mr. Fakhreddin, shaking his head. “He’s just like Saddam and Gadhafi; people like these think they are not like normal people. They think they are gods.”