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Syrian referendum changes nothing

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TEL AVIV -- A referendum on a new constitution for Syria Sunday changed nothing -- the opposition does not recognize the results and the proposed constitutional changes are so minor as to be meaningless.

The White House has already described the referendum as "laughable." Berlin called it a "sham" and a "farce."

The proposed reforms -- that new parties be allowed to compete with the single Baath party and that President Bashar Assad be limited to two seven-year terms beginning at the end of his current term -- are widely seen as gimmicks to provide cover for Russian and Chinese support of the regime, which they have declared should be given time to reform itself.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately urged the Syrian army to turn on the regime and "put their country first," as happened in Libya. But unlike Libya, there have been no large-scale desertions from the Syrian army nor defections from the Syrian diplomatic corps.

Furthermore, the Syrian crisis is testing a new phase in international relations. Unlike Egypt, where President Anwar Sadat in 1972 "disengaged" from the Soviet Union and moved closer to the U.S., in Syria, the Assad family remains loyal first to the Soviet Union and second to Syria.

Hence, and contrary to hopes and predictions of the U.S., Europe, Turkey and the Arab Persian Gulf states that Russia could "adjust" its position in the Syrian crisis, Vladimir Putin leaves no doubt where he stands. Putin appreciates Syria's loyalty and believes that Sunday's referendum will give Assad a tool to continue his crackdown on the Syrian opposition.

Thus, the "battle lines" are drawn.

After a year of fighting, the regime is unwilling to yield to its opponents. Nor could the weak and disorganized opposition yield after a year of struggle that has claimed, so far, about 7,500 lives.

Each side considers yielding to be political suicide.

What, then, is the solution? All agree that the downfall of Assad could prove to be even more important than the removal of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

It could bring regional change, as it concerns both Moscow and Tehran. It could affect the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Sunni-Shiite dispute and the freedom of movement to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

It is now clear that even Syria did not correctly evaluate what would happen after the disappearance from the scene of Hussein in Baghdad and Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon. Both were Sunni Muslims; Assad and his clan are Shiites.

Now the U.S. is caught between its desire to see Assad gone and its fear of civil war in Syria.

For Russia and Iran, preserving their interests in Syria means keeping Assad in power.

The Arab states, mostly those of the Persian Gulf, have already concluded that the only way to undermine Assad's regime is to arm the Free Syrian Army. If the Europeans and the U.S. dither, the Gulf states won't -- weapons will enter Syria anyway, as they already are.

The question then will be: Is that sufficient? All agree that the maximum that can be smuggled into Syria through Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey will be light automatic weapons and light anti-tank missiles. The Free Syrian Army lacks qualified commanders who are able to design an all-state strategy. Will the West or Turkey send such officers to Syria? It's doubtful.

In contrast, Assad's army is well equipped with Russian tanks, missiles and artillery. If needed, Assad can use his missile arsenal. So far, he has shown restraint on that front. He can afford to -- everyone agrees that despite the ferocity of the struggle, he has the upper hand. The Sunnis in Damascus and Aleppo are solidly behind the regime. Bashar's father, Hafez, gave the Sunnis in these two cities many economic benefits and they have vital interests in preserving them.

What is more important, the Alawite ruling minority, only 12 per cent of 22 million Syrians, will fight to the death to keep its grip on power in Syria.

In Egypt the army did not hesitate to "sacrifice" Hosni Mubarak in order to retain its influence. Syria is totally different. Since the days of Hafez Assad, Alawite army, intelligence and security officers occupy the most important positions in the Syrian high command. They know that should Assad fall, they and their families will be slaughtered by the Sunni majority.

This is the dilemma that the U.S. and Europe are facing. A direct and deeper western involvement in Syria could lead to results that no one can predict.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free

Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2012 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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