The Grim Stalemate in Damascus

The semblance of normalcy in Damascus, a metropolis of some 5 million - more than 20 percent of Syria's population - is surreal.

At the end of a five-day visit last month to Damascus, the dominant impression was of latent explosive tension under the outward calm of quotidian life. What began as a popular protest against a stifling and moribund regime has turned itself into a first-class international problem in the most volatile part of the Middle East.

The semblance of normalcy in Damascus, a metropolis of some 5 million - more than 20 percent of Syria's population - is surreal. We saw hordes of families picnicking in the green meadows surrounding the city, enjoying the onset of spring, and young people still going to schools and universities. Yet just below the surface, the tension on their faces - and in their words - is palpable. It is the uncertainty that breeds their fear.

Nationally, tourist arrivals, which usually peak at this time, are nonexistent; almost no industrial activity is taking place; agriculture has been affected in the fertile regions around Homs and Hama; there is a fear of shortages, particularly of pharmaceuticals; and foreign exchange reserves are down to $4-6 billion. The European Union's economic sanctions have begun to bite. Yet, the Damascenes were going about the normal business of life having inured themselves to the strife in the rest of the country and the threat of imminent collapse.

After 15 months of - now mainly externally inspired and funded - protests, an uneasy stalemate can be seen at different levels: domestic, popular, regional and international. The best that the UN Security Council could come up with, thanks to the Russians and Chinese, was the Kofi Annan plan, which is now on its last legs. And with the likely inflow of funds, high-grade weapons and equipment following the last Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul, the portent of a country-wide bloody civil war looms ominously. Recent Syria-related clashes in neighboring Lebanon also portend the spread of the turmoil around the region. The presence of UN observers in different crisis locations, rather than preventing further violence, has only served to solidify sectarian fault lines, making the situation hugely intractable.

Meanwhile, the stalemate continues between the regime and the fractious and utterly-divided opposition groups - all of which, excepting the "local coordination committees" in various cities, are based abroad. None of them have any following or credibility in the country and, wisely, none participated in the National Assembly elections on May 7.

The Syrian government claims it has met its obligations as delineated in the Annan plan - that it has withdrawn heavy artillery and troops from populated areas in Homs, Hama and Idlib - and is ready for the "national dialogue." But who is it to talk to? Burhan Ghalioun, the French professor who has led the so-called Syrian National Council, reminds one of U.S. attempts to parachute Ahmad Chalabi on the Iraqi people. There is no meeting of minds within the opposition groups, as each jockeys for primacy. Even sponsors such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are unsure of their reliability and staying power.

Although the new constitution removes the primacy of the Ba'ath Party, its 3.5 million registered members remain united behind the regime, as does the membership of the unions, who number another 2.5 million. The National Assembly elections can only be seen as a tentative first step toward an open political system in the country. That nine new parties were registered, with about 1,200 candidates bidding for the 250 seats in the Parliament, was encouraging, yet it will be many years before the new political formations become a real challenge to the Ba'ath.

Similarly, the Syrian Army remains united, with minimal desertions. Although its commitment to the regime is exceedingly partisan and unbecoming of a national institution, paradoxically the people of Damascus still look to its soldiers to provide security on the streets and to maintain peace.

It would seem that 15 months of violent unrest have led to an ambiguous assessment among the populace that the known devil is better than the unknown.

The growing assertion of power by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen has given the Syrians a vision of what could be in store for them. Some feel that the price to be paid for transition will be too high in terms of internal peace and security. Over and over I heard the refrain, "We don't want to become the next Libya."

It would be facile to say that all Syrians, regardless of their religious persuasion, would like the secular ethos to continue. Some 70 percent of the population is Sunni, with the minorities, including the ruling Alawites, making up the rest. There's a growing presence of Al-Qaida and armed Salafist elements from Libya, Tunisia and Afghanistan. It is estimated that 20 percent of the population would support the Muslim Brotherhood once they show their hand. That would make them the single largest opposition group in the country.

At the same time, it would not be inaccurate to say that the Syrians as a whole - even those opposed to President Bashar Assad - would be averse to seeing these elements getting power. There is a conviction that regime change would be unending, uncertain and violent. For the present at least, at the popular level the craving for stability and security seems to have won over the desire for change. And the government knows it.

For minorities like the Alawites and the Shia, the Christians, the Druze and the Kurds, traditionally allied to the regime, the situation - quite simply - is one of life and death. Their targeting by the insurgents in Homs is a sign of the likely outcome if a nonsecular regime comes to power. This was the sentiment that emerged from my meetings with the heads of the Syrian Christian and Druze communities.

Syria today is acutely conscious of its dwindling number of friends abroad. In the interest of the Syrian population, it is necessary for the international community to keep the focus on furthering its democracy agenda in a "Syrian-led process" - as mandated by UNSC Resolution 2042 - and keeping at bay the sectarian interests that have hijacked it.

Rajendra Abhyankar, a former Indian ambassador to Syria, visited Damascus in April 2012.