The Syrian endgame has begun. The insurgents are digging into the outskirts of Damascus; large swathes of northern Syria are in rebel hands; when President Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters and jets venture out against rebel strongholds, they get shot down. Mr Assad now faces the prospect of dying at the hands of the rebels or of his own supporters if he tries to flee.
The agonised questions the international community has been asking for the last 18 months are becoming irrelevant. Do we arm the rebels? They are already armed. Do we provide them with safe havens? They have them already. Can we stop the killing? Not anymore.
As endgame approaches, the real question is whether, having done so little to secure the rebels’ allegiance, Western governments have any leverage to shape their conduct now that they are winning. The US will soon anoint the Syrian opposition as “the” legitimate representative of the Syrian people, but the militias inside the country who have done the fighting will not surrender power to these ‘outsiders’ without a struggle.
If nearby Iraq is any guide, outsiders will be swept aside by insiders and the transition from violence to politics will be bloody.
When the regime eventually falls, pent-up forces of vengeance will be unleashed. The Alawite, Kurdish, Christian and Druze minorities have reason to fear the day the Sunni majority takes Damascus. Sectarian warfare may break out in a country littered with unsecured chemical weapons.
The challenges facing any post-Assad Syrian leadership will be daunting: securing these weapons, protecting minorities from revenge massacres and preventing the Syrian state from disintegrating altogether into warring sectarian enclaves.
The armed groups who come out on top in the struggle will seek outside help, and each outside actor, whether it be the Qataris, the Saudis, the western governments or the Russians, will struggle for influence over a chaotic situation.
There is still reason to believe that the worst can be avoided. No matter how virulently the UN Security Council disagreed about intervention while the civil war was raging, they have a strong motive to come together now that it approaches its end. The Russians, Americans, Saudis and all of Syria’s neighbours, including the Israelis, have an interest in preserving the integrity of the Syrian state, keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists and ending sectarian blood-letting that could further destabilise Jordan and Lebanon.
It’s not unimaginable to see the Russians and Americans co-operating in a joint UN mandated force to secure weapons stockpiles; or to see them jointly promoting a strong UN political mission to channel the factions of Syria towards constitution making and elections. The reason that erstwhile antagonists like Russia and the US might co-operate in a UN mandated transition in Syria is paradoxical: each has lost something by doing nothing in Syria, and all might gain something if they act together to secure an end to bloodshed there. This is the outcome most devoutly to be wished for in 2013.
The writer is a former Canadian politician, now teaching at the University of Toronto