Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, addressing the country on national TV on January 6, has denounced his opponents as “enemies of God and puppets of the West,” but has for the first time put forward his version of a political approach to the Syrian civil war, which has already lasted 21 months and claimed some 60,000 lives. Mr. Assad, in his first public statement since he spoke to Russian television in November 2012, and his first in Syria since June, said the army would halt military operations (but would retain the right to defend state interests), provided other countries ceased to arm what he called terrorist groups. A conference of national dialogue would follow, in which the government, individuals, and political parties would try to reach agreement on a national charter to be put to a referendum; there would then be parliamentary elections leading to the formation of a new government. The main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has rejected the Assad proposals, saying the President wanted only solutions that would keep him in control and that the SNC would accept nothing less than Mr. Assad’s departure. Another group, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB) — which is tolerated by the regime — says it will not enter into talks unless the violence ceases. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for his part, has expressed disappointment that the Assad plan in effect rejects the U.N. proposal for a transitional governing body.
That Mr. Assad has raised a political proposal itself indicates his recognition that only a political solution will suffice. His more vituperative comments about the opposition, which include calling them a Western-fabricated movement, will, however, not help, and will probably harden dissident and Western attitudes. Yet Mr. Assad has a point. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have channelled weaponry to the insurgents, who now control parts of northern Syria, and neither Riyadh nor Doha is likely to welcome representative democracy in Syria. Indeed, those two regional powers may well favour extreme Sunni factions among the SNC over the others. Secondly, the United States holds that the Syrian people’s goal is a political transition, and the European Union insists that that cannot be achieved unless Mr. Assad steps aside. Such stands reiterate the Western commitment to regime change above all else, and make it harder even for Mr. Assad’s strongest ally, Russia, which recognises the need for a political solution, to encourage Mr. Assad to negotiate. They do nothing to bring about the only tenable solution, which will be one devised by the Syrian people themselves.