This regime cannot be trusted to come up with the necessary vision for reform on its own. Frankly, it does not have the necessary know how, awareness and skills to envision and, independently, lead such process. Left to its own devices, the best it can do is to dig in, retrench and hope the crisis will blow over.
To avoid this, the vision for change must be supplied from outside – a clear vision with clearly enunciated steps and a timetable, including: guarantees for basic freedoms, releasing of all political prisoners, return of the exiles, formation of independent political parties and holding general elections on a given date to write a new constitution for the country. In other words: the whole shebang.
In exchange, the reformers within the regime, which need to include the President, if we wish to be realistic, should receive clear promises that peace talks with Israel would resume once the internal situation is stabilized. After all, a return of the Golan Heights is required in order to give the entire process of reform the required internal legitimacy, within the ranks of the regime itself as well as the general population.
Also, the reformers need to know that they will be supported should they encounter any internal difficulty or opposition as a result of implementing the approved plan.
This is how things could work: a high level delegation from the US (and France) could come to Damascus and hold secret talks with key figures in the regime, including the President. The purpose will be to present the said plan and make the necessary promises of support.
If adopted, the plan will be announced by the President himself, and as son as he does that, US and French officials should come out in support of this “wonderful and brave move” and they should promise the Syrian people that should their leadership indeed go ahead with this process in a timely fashion, the international community will offer its support and will seek to revive the Syrian-Israeli peace process allowing for the return of the Golan Heights.
Focus can then be returned to the issue of internal reforms, until they are carried through. Emerging as a hero, the President will most likely be reelected with a comfortable majority. Other figures from the Ancien Régime are also likely to emerge as key figures in the government and parliament.
Even the Baath Party, being the most organized party in the country at this stage, will still reserve a place under the sun for itself.
The major difference here is that everybody will have to worry about working hard to win elections, which means keeping your constituency satisfied.
Of course, free elections will surely bring a Sunni majority to power, one that will be heavily influenced by Islamist thought, an inauspicious development from the perspective of the country’s minorities, especially the Alawites.
The fears in this regard could be allayed though through the adoption of national bill of rights and, perhaps, through the adoption of a bicameral parliament. In this parliament, the lower house will be a house of representative dominated by the elected majorities and whatever coalitions that will emerge. It will be responsible for managing the day to day affairs of government.
The upper house, on the other hand, will have a fixed representation on a regional basis. Considering Syria’s geography, this will ensure that members of minority groups will have a light majority. The upper house will be responsible for control, of the army and of reviewing legislation passed by the lower house to make sure that it does not violate the rights of the minorities. So, even if Islamists are in control of the lower house, they still could not impose the Sharia on anybody.
So long as everyone is willing to play by these rules, the system could work for everyone’s benefit. My assessment is that only the most fanatical Islamist groups will refuse to play by these rules.
As such, and despite the seemingly fanciful and dreamy quality of these proposals, they might just work. Everybody now knows change is inevitable. We just have to give the situation one final shot to make sure that this change is peaceful. We might all still be able to get what we want, or, at least, part of it.