The vain search for dialogue in a battle-scarred Syria

By Lyse Doucet
BBC News

Image caption, Holding on to power: Privately, some of President Bashar al-Assad's officials accept change may be necessary.

Often in politics it comes down to one man. In Syria, it is Bashar al-Assad.

Everywhere we travelled in Syria last week the president's name was invoked.

"Bashar must go!" was the constant refrain in impromptu protests we saw in neighbourhoods in Damascus and Homs.

At other times on some streets, Syrians would whisper tersely: "We can't talk to you." Then with a gesture of a knife slitting their throat, they would add: "Bashar would kill me".

But there was another narrative too.

Image caption, In Damascus some Assad supporters say Syria would collapse without him.

"You expect Bashar to step down? Why?" was often the response of government officials who, in off-the-record conversations, would call for change but not at the very top.

"If Bashar al-Assad goes, the system would collapse," one official warned. "That's in no-one's interest, and most of all not in Syria's."

As violence grows, and takes more deadly forms, inner circles of the regime seem to be closing ranks, although it is hard to say with much certainty what fissures lie beneath the surface.

Some individuals who had access to the president now speak of a leader who "no longer listens" to advice.

Fear of retaliation, including against family members, may help keep the regime tight, but so does anxiety over what happens should it crack.

The narrative is often framed as a battle for Syria's survival, including the maintenance of its secular traditions.

'Windows for dialogue'

More than one regime supporter told me the only way out was an election between Bashar al-Assad and would-be candidates from the opposition.

That is a preposterous idea for his opponents in a conflict that has already claimed an estimated 10,000 lives, most of them civilians killed in crushing government assaults.

Mr Assad's supporters insist he would still win. After 14 months of horrific violence, it is hard to imagine dialogue in such deepening hostility and hatred.

But Maj Gen Robert Mood, who heads the UN monitoring mission in Syria, says he is "absolutely convinced windows can be found".

"Everyone is searching," the Norwegian officer, with years of experience in the region, explained in an interview at his Damascus headquarters.

"We are searching at local and national levels, and for engagement from outside. Openings are there."

Gen Mood described the situation as "very fragmented".

"It's a different situation in Deraa than in Homs, different in Idlib and Hama. It differs from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. We are not seeing one chain of command which goes from top to bottom," he elaborated.

The UN team, among others, is starting to reach out to people, on both sides, who indicate they may want to talk.

In Homs, a senior Syrian official told me: "We want to talk to the militants, but they have no leaders, no programme."

Image caption, UN monitors hope there is still room for dialogue between Syria's warring sides.

"They should just pick a person and just start talking, just start a process," said one Western observer in Syria.

But if there are acceptable official figures outside Damascus who might negotiate with the opposition, no-one can tell how much leeway they have in pursuing local solutions to stop the violence.

"Will Damascus stop anyone? It's not clear how far it will let them go," remarked one Western official.

In recent weeks, the government has unleashed a sweeping campaign of arrests of intellectuals and activists, the very voices who may want to play a role in moving this situation forward.

It is equally difficult to find negotiating partners across a range of armed opposition groups which one source described as a "fragmented flat structure".

Spiralling violence

But far clearer than any political opening is the widening spiral of violence. During our two days in Homs with UN monitors, shelling continued virtually around the clock.

Large swathes of the city lie in ruin, a chilling testament to the indiscriminate violence unleashed by the government against opposition strongholds.

Image caption, Fractured opponents: One Western official described Syria's opposition as "fragmented and flat".

Both sides are now violating a month-old UN ceasefire, a key part of envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan.

"In many areas, the government is not moving its tanks and heavy weapons forward but it is defending its positions," said one informed observer. He also described how the opposition "is now mounting more attacks, trying to gain more territory".

There have been a number of significant operations by anti-government forces in recent weeks, including one north of Homs which UN sources described as an "well co-ordinated attack" that led to battles lasting a few hours.

There are more reports of arms reaching the opposition, but one source said some of the traffic was coming via middlemen and their provenance was not always clear to the groups who received them.

Twin bombings that killed 55 people in Damascus on 10 May have also concentrated minds on the emergence of what is being called "a third force", involving elements of more militant groups including al-Qaeda.

Image caption, Bomb attacks in Damascus have been blamed on al-Qaeda.

This development plays into the narrative of the government, which is accused by the opposition of manipulating Jihadi groups to play on fears at home and abroad of a slide into greater chaos.

But Western intelligence sources say there is evidence of more sophisticated expertise entering the country, although the presence of foreign militants is still unclear.

One source following the situation closely said this "was just a matter of time".

When I asked Gen Mood about the increased use of bombs, he called it "a worrying trend".

If the cycle of violence did not stop, he warned, "it would challenge the future of this country in a way I really don't want to think about".

Yet Syrians on both sides are focusing on exactly that, causing some to plead for a peaceful resolution, others to harden their stance, and prompting many to ask whether the men and women leading the conflict are really listening.

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