Syria today denied Russian claims that President Bashar al-Assad was prepared to relinquish power “in a civilized way,” as observers questioned the regime’s longevity and speculated on a possible strategic retreat to an Alawite coastal enclave.
“Syrian authorities claimed on state television on Friday that they had successfully wrested control of the key Damascus neighbourhood of Midan from armed rebel fighters as a ferocious and bloody battle for the capital continued,” according to reports. “But rebels appeared to retain control of key crossings on the borders with Iraq and Turkey as fighting raged across the country and the international community once again traded accusations over how to deal with the besieged regime.”
The upsurge in violence has changed the diplomatic dynamics, says Princeton University’s Anne-Marie Slaughter.
“Part of what I would be thinking about if I were on the Security Council is at least thinking about the scenario that this is the endgame, that things are going to unroll very quickly in the next couple of weeks,” says Slaughter, a former director of policy planning at the US State Department. “And then, though, just as in Libya, just as in Yemen, the question is going to be, what next?”
Some observers believe Washington and its allies might yet intervene, irrespective of U.N. approval.
“The Friends of Syria could become the coalition of the willing. You lay down sanctions, and then you come up with military contingencies, that is Plan B,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“It is going to be driven by necessity, and by what is going on the ground,” he said. “If the threats are genocide, and chemical weapons are used, that is going to change things.”
“Until now,” Tabler writes in Foreign Policy, “giving Assad the benefit of the doubt has only led to more deaths and an increasingly evident U.S. failure to stop the carnage in Syria. The Obama administration has drawn a red line at mass atrocities in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East. It should do the same in Syria.”
The international community’s failure to intervene in the conflict has raised the prospect of a sectarian aftermath, some observers suggest.
“The regime is shedding layer after layer of what made it a state. The risk now is that it will just shed that last layer that still makes it different from a large militia,” says Peter Harling, Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Syria’s Christians supported Assad and the Alawite regime for fear of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. But many Christians also “believe that democracy in the long run is the best protection for Christians,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“An early resolution of this grim war would have kept intact the institutions of the Syrian state,” writes Fouad Ajami. “It would have enabled the Alawites to walk away from the wreckage, dissociate themselves from the crimes of the Assads, and reach an accommodation with the Sunni majority.”
This week’s bomb attack on Assad’s inner circle had been facilitated by “corrupt officials, said Ausama Monajed, a leading member of the Syrian National Council opposition group. He said it was “part of the Damascus Volcano”, an upsurge driven by the realization that foreign aid would not be forthcoming.
“Syrians on the ground have lost hope of any international help or aid,” he said. “They have to take matters into their own hands.”
Some observers believe the regime is far from finished.
“Something is definitely looming in Syria, but it’s not end-game. It’s more like the end of Round One,” says Ammar Abduhamid, an exiled pro-democracy activist.
“I’m a little skeptical about things collapsing quickly,” said the Washington Institute’s Tabler, who believes the regime may make a “strategic retreat” to the Alawites’ historic coastal bastion near Latakia.
Emile Hokayem, Beirut-based analyst for London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, questions whether an Alawite militia could be sustainable:
The Assad regime would have little strategic value for its allies, be it the Russians or the Iranians, or even Lebanon’s Hizbollah, if it ended up defending an Alawite enclave. If that happened, Mr Hokayem points out, it would be solely focused on survival – and on revenge.
But opposition groups are already preparing for a post-Assad transition.
“We’ve been preparing for the end of the Assad regime for a long time,” Abdulbaset Sieda, head of the opposition Syrian National Council, told Reuters news agency. “Our aim is to reach that phase with minimal losses. We have plans on the economic, administrative and social levels, and we are certain we can do it.”
Assad may yet fall victim to his own allies, some analysts suggest.
“The probability of a coup is rapidly rising,” says global intelligence consultancy Stratfor.
“In light of the critical Tlass defection and Wednesday’s attack, future defections will start to affect the regime’s higher levels of leadership and will raise the potential for the Alawite core to begin to fragment.”
Recent events make a diplomatic resolution of the conflict more likely, says another leading SNC figure.
“The change on the ground, especially after this operation in Syria, will convince the Russians that to keep and to reserve their interests in the future, they have to change their position, and they have to support the Syrian people,” said Radwan Ziadeh: a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Both the regime and the opposition will continue the conflict, regardless of diplomatic action, some observers suggest.
“None of this is going to end well,” says Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’re looking at a cycle of instability that’s going to last at least a decade regardless of whether there is a diplomatic solution.”