Concrete Proposals for Democratic Transition: Syrian Opposition Presents Vision for Day After Assad

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The war is raging on in Syria but opposition members are already planning a transition to democracy. They presented proposals in Berlin on Tuesday and played down the prospect of a chaotic power vacuum after Bashar Assad falls. But given the lack of international support for the fragmented rebel movement, their vision looks utopian.

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo carriying the body of a comrade. Zoom
REUTERS

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo carriying the body of a comrade.

Members of the Syrian opposition presented detailed proposals for a transition to democracy once the regime of President Bashar Assad has collapsed, after holding secret talks in Berlin hosted by one of Germany's leading foreign policy think-tanks.

The project, called "The Day After," consisted of negotiations among some 45 Syrians from all ethnic groups and confessions, including members of the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The talks were kept secret in part to ensure the security of the participants, some of whom are in Syria.

The executive committee of the group consists mainly of scholars living in exile. They have come up with concrete proposals (PDF download) for reforming the military and police and the justice system, for drafting a new constitution and for restructuring the economy.

"We hope this will be disseminated among the Syrian people who will then begin to see that the post-Assad transition is not something to be feared but something to be looked forward to and something we should anticipate in the hope of building a better Syria for ourselves," Amr Al-Azm, a history professor who served as an advisor to the Assad government until 2006, told a news conference in Berlin.

The talks took place on a monthly basis between January and June and were sponsored by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and the United States Institute for Peace. The governments of the US and Switzerland helped fund the meetings, as did two NGOs from the Netherlands and Norway.

The recommendations don't amount to a blueprint but should serve as a basis for debate once a Syrian transitional government has been formed, the participants said.

"The project is a series of suggestions that will or won't be taken up by a transitional government," said Murhaf Jouejati, a member of the Syrian National Council, an Arab philosopher who is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Bonn. "They aren't set in stone."

Call to Secure Evidence in Torture Chambers

The proposals are detailed, though. On the rule of law, recommendations include training police in crowd control so that they can cope with peaceful demonstrations, protecting scenes of torture and mass graves to prevent evidence from being destroyed and closing all the most notorious prisons where human rights were violated.

On the issue of security services, the members propose vetting retired and active army and police officers to identify trustworthy individuals who could assume leadership roles after Assad. Some 30 generals had already defected to the Free Syrian Army, said Jouejati. "It would be the good apples who have defected who would have a major role in the re-eastablishment of the security forces," he said.

The document proposes basing a transitional security force on the Syrian National Police, including members of the armed and unarmed opposition.

The new army would have to be under civilian authority and apolitical, said Jouejati. He warned that remnants of the regime will try to destabilize the system after Assad's fall. "There is a likelihood of vengeance killings, there is a high likelihood of chaos, of remnants of the Shabiha continuing in their brutal violence against the people."

The constitution introduced by Assad in February should be replaced by a new one drafted by a constitutional assembly including all ethnic groups and confessions, and should then be voted on in a national referendum, according to the proposals.

In a sign of divisions among the opposition movement, the participants stressed that they had not all agreed unanimously on the proposals, and that the document was not a blueprint. Instead, the suggestios were "a starting point for discussions, debates and disagreements."

Too Soon for Transitional Government

The members said a transitional government should be formed soon, but they added that it would be too soon to form one now given that the US government regards such a step as premature.

French President François Hollande on Monday became the first Western leader to urge Syria's rebels to set up an alternative government, in a sign of French frustration with the international community's failure to take strong action that would speed up Assad's fall.

But Afra Jalabi, a member of the executive committee of "The Day After," said: "If the international community is not to willing at this point to recognize a transitional government unanimously, I think it would be a wasted effort."

The best help the world could give now would be military support for the Free Syrian Army, the representatives said.

"We need the means to stop the Syrian regime from killing its people," said Azm. "That means being able to stop the jet fighters, the helicopters and the heavy artillery that is employed against us. When you're being bombed by MIG fighter jets dropping 500 pound bombs on you that can flatten ten houses at a time, we need a little more than just words."

It remains unclear if any of the proposals will be adopted after Assad's fall, and no one knows who will lead a transitional government. But fears of a descent into complete chaos in the country might be exaggerated, said Azm.

"Remember that large swaths of Syria today are no longer under the control of the regime and many of these areas have been out of the control of the regime for not just weeks and days but months and months and in some cases almost a year.

"I do not see chaos and apocalpyse in those areas. Those areas have transitioned very nicely and are doing rather well for themselves."

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Supporting a Democratic Transition in Syria
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