Demonstration in Homs

Regional military intervention, international interference, bi-lateral negotiations, round table meetings, humanitarian aid, unification of the opposition, arming of the rebels – these terms were being thrown around at the Frontline Club this evening, bouncing off each other only to be caught and chucked again, in a debate on the steps that should be taken for Syria. There may be many options, but as the heated discussion and its decent into a rabble of raised voices showed, there is no right answer here. The foreseeable outcome of every idea raised tonight is an extension of the bloodshed.

Ammar Waqqaf, a member of the Syrian Social Club which backs regime reform, said: “If NATO come in, the number of dead will be 700,000 not 7,000. The majority of Syrians don’t want the central government to collapse.” And that’s  not because they like the regime, but because they trust it more than an unknown entity to carry out reforms.

Syrian politician Mouna Ghanem said: “International intervention will not work.” She advocated round table negotiations between all parties.

But Malik Al-Abdeh, chief editor of Syrian opposition channel Barada TV, disagreed: “We’ve gone way past the point of negotiations, ” he said. “If Assad was interested, he would have done that long ago.”

Instead, he advocated arming the Free Syria Army so they stand a chance against Assad’s troops. “There isn’t enough strength to force Assad out,” he said. “Only military intervention can do that.”

And that is what the Free Syria Army are calling for – international assistance. They face an increasingly dangerous path and they can no longer see themselves succeeding on their own.

Ramita Navai, who spent 2 weeks in Syria for Unreported World in September, said the rebels she met then were adamant they wanted to do this on their own. They absolutely didn’t want international help. “But now,” she said, “they very much do.”

But Ms Ghonem maintained that the Syrian army is too big for the activists to take on, even if they are armed. And Ms Navai agreed. She compared the size of Gaddafi’s army to Assad’s, saying that what worked there could never work in Syria.

It took an hour before sectarian divides were brought up. Once again this caused friction in the panel. It was Mr Al-Abdeh who mentioned ‘the elephant in the room’ as he put it. “I don’t believe there was ever a sectarian problem in Syria,” he said. But since the 60s indignation among Sunni Muslims has been growing.

Ms Ghonem hotly refuted him, saying “Everybody is mixed in Syria, there is no separation.”

But according to Ms Navai, when the activists began their protests, they did so in the name of a repressed Sunni population led unfairly by the Alawite minority. “The sectarian issue is a big part of why this happened,” she said.

Whatever conclusions were drawn from tonight’s discussion, international military intervention seems unlikely, as does round table negotiation. Another observer mission is set to begin but a stalemate looks to be on the cards. Even if Assad stops the shelling, he doesn’t appear ready to leave office.

A transition to democracy and regime change never came easily but Assad and his allies are not making light work of it. The referendum on the new constitution may placate the moderate Syrians who are trying to just lead their lives, but it will appease few protesters. Plus there is little faith in its impact in the international community.

Can Assad really believe he will weather this storm and maintain his monopoly? Something the panel agreed on: Syria can never go back to pre-March 15th 2011.



After my post yesterday on the journalists killed in Syria this week, I should add that Marie Colvin was supposed to be at the Frontline Club event tonight, chairing it, but wrote to its founder Vaughan Smith to say she would no longer be able to do it. She said: “They’re killing people with impunity and I have to write what I can.” So she stayed a few more days.

The full panel discussion can be seen here on the Frontline Club’s live stream page. It was part of the series of talks in conjunction with BBC Arabic.