Syrian Officials Sound a Conciliatory Note Toward the Opposition

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DAMASCUS, Syria -- Coming from a Syrian deputy prime minister, it was an unusual statement. The country's crisis, he said, began in part with a "popular movement" of peaceful protesters angry over economic disparities, and descended into war in part because officials were slow to make changes and failed to realize that the "repression of the popular movement" would lead to disaster.

Now, days after the official, Qadri Jamil, spoke in an interview, President Bashar al-Assad himself has declared that he and his government have made mistakes and that they share some blame for the crisis with rebels. Mr. Assad told the German magazine Der Spiegel, in an interview to be published on Monday, that he could not claim that the insurgents "did everything and we did nothing." Reality, he said, has "shades of gray."

After years of describing the country's civil war in black and white, as an international terrorist conspiracy, Syrian officials in recent days appear to be trying to sound more conciliatory, as global powers try to arrange peace talks in Geneva to end the bloody stalemate, and as international weapons inspectors began on Sunday to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal.

Mr. Assad did not specify his mistakes, at least not in early excerpts released by the magazine, and he toughened his position in some ways, appearing to rule out negotiations with the armed opposition. But Mr. Jamil, one of two ministers from officially tolerated opposition parties appointed during the crisis, spent much of a 90-minute interview last week offering a detailed critique of the government, including the security forces.

"The Syrian regime is the hero of lost opportunities," he said.

Mr. Jamil spoke in his office, beneath a portrait of Mr. Assad. Yet he said he spoke not for the government but as a member of Syria's nonviolent opposition, which he said aimed, in the next elections, to "make the current majority into a minority."

Mr. Jamil, a Soviet-trained economist, is seen even by government supporters as having little to no authority over policy decisions, and is derided by backers of the uprising as part of a toothless opposition set up by the government to create the appearance of openness.

He is not the first Syrian official to suggest that the government should meet some opposition demands; the vice president, Farouk al-Shara, warned last year in a Lebanese newspaper that the government could not win militarily, and called for a broad coalition government, only to be removed from public view and shunted from a top post in the governing Baath Party.

Mr. Jamil described an internal power struggle between "clean forces" pushing for substantive changes and "forces of corruption," which he said included security hard-liners opposed to a political solution, as well as people on both sides benefiting financially from the chaos.

"There are certain segments inside the regime, similar to other segments inside the opposition, who don't want to have this political solution," he said. "This is either because of narrow-minded mentalities or because they have turned into merchants of the crisis."

He added that "extremists on both sides" would "fight each other by day and sit to divide the spoils at night."

Though he did not name Mr. Assad as one of the reformers, one of his advisers did, and Mr. Jamil's comments resonated with a view popular among the president's supporters that he has always aimed for reform but has been stymied by hard-liners.

He insisted that he faced no risks in making the comments. "The West has to get used to the new Syria," he said.

Mr. Jamil, affable and fluent in Russian, runs his office with the help of members of his tolerated Communist party, the People's Will. He echoed the government line on many issues, rejecting foreign intervention, calling on the West to adopt Syria as an ally against Islamist "neo-fascism" and declaring that removing Mr. Assad by means other than elections would short-circuit democracy.

But he added his own twists. He dispensed with the government refrain that Mr. Assad is a democratically elected president, saying Syria has never had a free or transparent election.

"Nobody asked the people until now," he said.

He said the influx of foreign weapons, funds and insurgents "from any side" should stop, not just extremist jihadists battling the government but also Lebanese, Iranian and Iraqi fighters supporting it. "If there are any" of those fighters, they came in response to an earlier jihadist infiltration, he said.

"We are not going to say 'first in first out,' but let's say 'everybody out,' " he said.

He said Syria needed "socioeconomic, deep, radical, gradual, peaceful, democratic and comprehensive" change that would constitute "the second phase of the popular Arab movement that began in Tunisia in 2011."

In Tunisia, "the president stepped down but the regime itself remained," he said. "We in Syria would like to achieve the opposite."

Mr. Jamil said his party had long believed that the economic liberalization policies that were the centerpiece of Mr. Assad's early rule would "lead to a social explosion."

He said those measures left 44 percent of Syrians in poverty, citing United Nations figures from 2009, and raised unemployment levels to 20 percent. The policies, he said, destroyed local producers in places like the Damascus suburbs of Zamalka, Harasta and Douma -- now centers of opposition -- while fueling the growth of the new rich, whom he said were now influential not only in the government but also in the exile opposition.

"All those towns whose names we are hearing now are similar to Detroit in America," he said. "So how one cannot expect to have resentments in their circles? But nobody saw that in due time."

His party, he said, took part in "all the peaceful activities of the popular movement" that began with protests in March 2011 and prompted a government crackdown.

"We have our dozens of martyrs and hundreds of detainees," he said.

He said the government tried to put down the movement by force, mistakenly relying on its experience repressing a violent Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the 1980s -- a time, he said, when fewer Syrians were politically aware.

"Now we have a popular movement and high political activity," he said. "Had the Syrian secret services read history, they would have understood the fact that such a popular movement shouldn't be treated with repression."

He said disaster ensued because both sides wanted a quick resolution, with the government "repeating every day it has finished the conspiracy" and "the extremist parts of the opposition" saying "next Friday the regime is going to break."

"They were utopian," he said of both sides.

He said the war that had killed more than 100,000 people and destroyed half of Syria's agricultural and industrial production could have been averted by carrying out changes after a "national dialogue" conference in July 2011 -- "had the Constitution been amended immediately, had the detainees who were not armed been released, had the people been compensated for their practical damages, had we gone to early elections."

"It is tragedy," he concluded.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 7, 2013 2:01 PM


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