How would you describe the situation in Syria since the unrest started in mid-March?
The Syrian uprising seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the general spirit of revolt which has spread across the whole region, scoring notable successes in Tunisia and Egypt. As in these two countries, the Syrian disturbances were powered by the coming of age of a new generation of young people. Many of these young people had gone to school or university only to discover on graduation that there was no work for them. Youth unemployment has been a major motor of all the Arab uprisings.
An additional factor, particular to Syria, has been the harsh conditions in the countryside as a result of four years of drought. The government does not seem to have responded adequately to the plight of the farming population. Ordinary people, struggling to provide for their families, felt neglected. The rural poor were strikingly present at Dera'a and elsewhere. They have provided the foot soldiers of the uprising.
One should add that after several decades of highly centralised power and of one-party rule, young and old in Syria have a thirst for greater political freedoms and for a less rigid control by the regime over society.
All these factors, together with the ostentatious display of wealth of a corrupt elite, have created an explosive situation which diehard opponents of the regime, many of them living abroad, have been able to exploit for their own political ends.
Is there a chance to find a political solution to the crisis?
Without a political solution, the country risks slipping into something like civil war, with a breakdown of law and order, arbitrary killings and the ever-present danger of sectarian conflict. If such a situation were to occur, everyone would suffer without exception. A political solution is therefore essential.
The government has expressed its wish for a national dialogue. But for such a dialogue to take place and for it to be meaningful the ground needs to be prepared and the right atmosphere created.
The violence in the street must end, political prisoners must be released, the protest movement must be allowed to name its own spokesmen for the dialogue, and their safety guaranteed. Above all, the regime must discipline its security forces [who violate orders]. An urgent priority must be to improve prison conditions, which are said to be deplorable.
If these measures were taken and explained to the public, a measure of calm could be restored and a dialogue might then be possible.
The lifting of the state of emergency needs to be implemented, not merely done as a formality. The judiciary should be given far greater independence. Some measure of freedom of expression must be allowed. The political monopoly of the Ba'ath Party should be ended and other parties allowed to be formed and to canvass for support. A vigorous and transparent campaign should be launched against corruption and the guilty brought to trial. Economic opportunities should be open to all, and not only to a favoured elite.
Above all, the president himself should address the nation and explain and promote his reform agenda, in order to win support for it.
What do you think of the media coverage of the unrest in Syria?
A striking feature of the crisis has been the absence of reliable information about the situation. No one outside Syria really knows in detail what is happening. This has allowed all sorts of rumours to circulate, some of them plainly false. This is because the regime has forbidden foreign journalists from entering the country. This prohibition has backfired against the government in many ways, as it has allowed the protesters to influence opinion outside the country by means of Facebook and videos taken by mobile phones, and so forth.
As a result, foreign opinion does not believe government statements, while the opposition has been given the opportunity to spread stories of gross abuses by the security services – some of which are true, but others may be false or exaggerated.
The regime would be well advised to allow a few journalists into the country as well as representatives of humanitarian organisations, so that they can judge the situation for themselves.
What do you think of a possible Islamic takeover in Syria?
There is no doubt that an Islamic opposition exists, of which the most active is probably the exiled Muslim Brotherhood and its local supporters. But I do not believe that they would be able to seize power. Syria has a tradition of secularism and of mutual acceptance. This tradition did not emerge by accident. It was necessary for social peace precisely because Syrian society is a complex mosaic of sects and ethnicities. Christians and Muslims in their various sects tend to be pious and God-fearing, but they are not fanatical. This is the best barrier to a takeover by any one extremist faction.
What would be the best and the worst scenario for Syria in the coming months?
The worst scenario would be some form of civil war, which would cause great misery for everyone, inflict huge damage on the country, ruin its reputation and greatly curtail its external influence.
The best scenario would be for men of goodwill, inside the regime and outside of it, to unite in order to create a model Syria – a country in which freedom, tolerance and prosperity were able to flourish. This can be done. Syria has many assets, not least its friendly, hospitable and intelligent people, its great cities of which Damascus and Aleppo are outstanding examples, its unique archaeological sites, and much else besides. There is hardly a foreign tourist that has not returned home full of gratitude and admiration for the wonders Syria can offer.