Syria’s civil war is deepening. Rebel forces have struck in the heart of Damascus, killing defence and security officials within both the regime’s inner circle and Bashar al-Assad’s family. Sanctions are in place, and the number of high-level defections is growing. Even former UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan now says that al-Assad “must leave office.” Has the conflict reached its endgame?
Would it were so. True, Mr Assad has few reliable friends outside his entourage and arms suppliers. His country has endured enough economic damage and his government lost enough credibility with Syria’s commercial elite, its armed forces, and the country’s majority Sunnis that his days are almost certainly numbered.
But that number is not as small as many think, because his willingness to use heavy artillery to pound his people into submission and the fear among minority Alawite core supporters that only he stands between them and a dark future keeps the killing in motion.
In short, short of a targeted assassination or some other form of quick decapitation strike by the rebels, we have a worst-case scenario: A regime that can’t win but won’t quit—and an outside world willing to do little more than watch.
Yes, Syria’s increasingly battle-tested rebels can expect more help. Local friends like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will supply them with weapons while Americans and Europeans continue to squeeze al-Assad’s government. Yet, the regime still has the heavy weapons, and fears that survival depends on absolute victory ensure the state’s willingness to use them.
Only active intervention by outsiders could quickly tip the balance in the rebels’ favor. Last week, as the regime prepared its current assault on Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and commercial capital, a US State Department warned that a “massacre” was in the works. That’s the same word deployed to justify last year’s NATO intervention in Libya. Fearing that Muammar Gaddafi army stood ready to slaughter the civilians of Benghazi, western governments used an Arab League invitation and a UN Security Council mandate to bomb government forces and boost rebel prospects.
Yet, that won’t happen in Syria. First, this time there will be no such institutional license to kill. Russia’s government will continue to veto UN resolutions that authorise force—not just because Mr Assad is a long-time friend and arms client, but because the west’s willingness to interpret the UN mandate as broadly as possible in Libya left Moscow feeling impotent and foolish. In addition, this conflict will play out not in the Libyan desert but in the heart of Syrian cities.
Second, Americans and Europeans aren’t exactly spoiling for another fight. Syria’s armed forces are far more capable than Gaddafi’s, and Syria is much more complicated than Libya. The Obama administration wants to minimize risks in the run-up to November’s elections, and though US voters are not focused on foreign policy, a failed effort to use US airpower and weapons to tip the balance in the conflict would certainly have an impact on the president’s standing. That’s why Washington will stick with covert support and humanitarian assistance. European leaders remain fully occupied with the fate of the Euro. Sanctions must suffice. Even if the Russians and Chinese decide that Mr Assad is bound to lose eventually, they are less than eager to endorse regime change to unseat an authoritarian government—and the precedent it might create.
There is also the (entirely reasonable) fear that the “controlled demolition” of Assad’s government now under discussion in the west will leave a potentially explosive vacuum of power inside yet another complex, multi-sectarian country at the heart of a volatile region and the intersection of its many rivalries.
That’s why US defense secretary Leon Panetta recently asserted Syria’s need to “maintain as much of the military and police as [possible], along with security forces” after Mr Assad is finally gone in order to help “transition to a democratic form of government.” That’s a pre-requisite for post-Assad stability—and it’s also intended to persuade the men with guns that their future is not tied to their president’s. Yet, no one should believe that building and maintaining a delicate political balance in a country plagued with scores to settle among minority Alawites and majority Sunnis—to say nothing of introducing genuine multiparty democracy—can make progress quickly or without conflict.
Instead, Syria can expect more slow-motion tragedy. Mr Assad will cling to power for some time to come, and the bombardment of Syrian cities will continue. The government and rebels will probably establish their respective strongholds. Neighbors like Lebanon and Jordan will feel the shockwaves as refugees seek safety.
When Mr Assad’s core supporters finally switch sides, outsiders will calculate how little they can do to help re-establish order. The country will then become an open arena in which Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey use proxies to protect their interests and play out their rivalries.