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Will Assad reach out to 'national opposition' in Syria?

According to Syrian officials, the re-elected President Bashar al-Assad will likely carry messages of reform and rapprochement with the so-called “national opposition” in his July 17 address marking his third term.
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with a German newspaper in Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA, June 17, 2013 . Europe will "pay the price" if it delivers arms to rebel forces in Syria, Assad said. REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CONFLICT) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED E

Not a week goes by without a Syrian official passing through Beirut. They either come to travel via the Lebanese capital’s airport because of the sanctions imposed on air traffic in Damascus, or to seek medical assistance in one of Beirut’s hospitals away from the media.

On the sidelines of these visits, one hears a lot about the state of affairs in our neighboring country and the progress of the 40-month-old war there.

One of those Syrian officials told Al-Monitor that the issue preoccupying Damascus the most lately — more than the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham's (ISIS) advance in Iraq, more than the battles raging in East Ghouta and the last pockets of militant resistance in the Qalamoun and even more than the Syrian army’s restored control over the Kassab region on the border with Turkey — is the makeup of the future Syrian government.

In so far as timing is concerned, the Syrian official stated that President Bashar al-Assad, who was re-elected June 3, has enough time to maneuver. For now, he is drafting his inaugural speech, scheduled for July 17, which will signal the start of his third presidential term in office. Subsequently, an announcement will be made about the new government, so that preparations for its formation are presumed to be ongoing as we speak. The official continued, “The new Syrian government will most probably carry with it two main messages: First, income reform, particularly in combating corruption and readying for the reconstruction process. Second, openness toward the 'national opposition.'” He defined this term as the opposition that stood against a foreign attack on Syria, does not harbor terrorist fundamentalist ideals and was persuaded to abandon violence once and for all. Here he was referring to the armed factions that entered into a truce with the regime in the framework of the “national reconciliation” that took place in some areas.

The same official explained, “Assad alluded to the issue of reform on more than one occasion. He talked about removing from office those involved in corruption, and establishing a fund to support the victims of the war. The fund would be financed with money taken from those accused of enriching themselves with public funds, or [gained] as a result of exploiting current events. [Assad] went as far as threatening to exterminate all those suspected of corruption, regardless of their position or influence.”

He said that more than one factor went into openness toward the “national opposition.” First, a new presidential mandate is at hand, and there is a need to present it as reformative and encompassing of all Syrians. Second, there is a need to find a replacement for the Geneva conferences. Internal Syrian developments, just like regional ones and international preoccupations, seem to have laid these conferences to rest for the long term or even rendered them completely defunct. This loss drives Syrian authorities and their Russian allies to search for a replacement to these discussions and alleviate international pressure on the country. As a result, there is talk of the Geneva III conference being transformed into a "Damascus I" conference.

The Syrian official said that a third motive lay behind the willingness to open up to the opposition, having to do with accurately interpreting the results of the Syrian presidential elections. He noted that while it is true that Assad won more than 10 million votes — according to the official tally, he received 10,319,732 or 88.7% of the votes cast — what was noteworthy was that the runner-up, Hassan al-Nouri, received more than 500,000 votes (4.35%), while third place went to Mahar Hajjar, who received more than 372,000 votes (3.2%). These numbers are important, for one should not downplay the fact that approximately one million voters cast ballots for the regime, but against Assad specifically. These one million voters represent more than 1.5 million Syrians, if one extrapolates to take their families into account. In addition, scrutinizing the polling stations where Nouri and Hajjar received most of their votes reveals that a significant portion were located in areas considered to be loyal to the armed opposition. This means that there are numerous Syrian citizens who have forsaken violence and decided to adopt peaceful measures of opposition, necessitating that the regime meet them halfway and open up to them.

The fourth and last motive behind the rapprochement revolves around the fact that a large number of opposition officials outside Syria have endeavored to contact Damascus authorities and open lines of communication with them. In effect, as the official confirmed, the former president of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, contacted Syrian authorities and met with regime representatives in addition to more than 20 leaders who participated in the so-called Istanbul Council (the Syrian National Council). Thus, it seemed that the prevailing atmosphere favored openness, and the perfect timing for it to begin would logically be the beginning of a new presidential term.

The official concluded that a change this time around might not involve the prime minister’s office. But such a change should not be ruled out in the coming few months, he said, and might be the outcome of negotiations with other more important and representative leaders of the opposition. Yet, the same anticipatory and negotiation-based processes might not only affect the premiership, but could also involve a change to one of the vice president's posts. The authorities in Damascus are eager to prove their seriousness in effectuating reform and openness as well.

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