UN investigators today accused the Syrian regime of committing crimes against humanity:
The UN investigators also said there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that government forces and their shabiha allies were responsible for “gross violations of international human rights law” including arbitrary arrest, unlawful killing and indiscriminate attacks against civilians.
Rebels were also responsible for abuses, the report said, although these “did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale of those committed by government forces and the shabiha”.
The report coincides with claims by a former Syrian prime minister that the regime is imploding.
“Based on my experience and my position, the regime is falling apart morally, materially, economically,” said Riyad Farid Hijab. “Its military is rusting, and it only controls 30 percent of Syria’s territory.”
He insisted that many other senior civilian and military officials — “leaders with dignity” — were ready to defect, and he urged opposition forces to unify and prepare a transitional government and “a civilian democratic state that preserves the right, justice and dignity of all Syrians.”
“I urge the army to follow the example of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s armies—take the side of the people,” he said.
Hijab’s claims echo those of Nawaf Fares, Syria’s former ambassador to Iraq, who said last month the regime was on its “last legs.”
The regime’s capacity for repression is also diminishing, says the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“They are having resupply problems; they are having morale problems; they are having the kind of wear and tear that would come of being in a fight for as long as they have,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey. “And I actually think that’s why Iran is stepping in to form this militia, to take some of the pressure off of the Syrian military.”
Tyrannical minority regimes that shell their own people will eventually fall. Mr. Assad controls only a small portion of Syria’s territory, and defections continue daily. But Syria is not awash with weapons allowing its opposition to arm itself as rebels did in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Without far more significant outside help for the rebels, Mr. Assad’s supporters, even if already defeated as a government, could continue indefinitely as a potent, organized fighting force thanks to the backing of Russia and Iran.
And this is the outcome more or less guaranteed by current American policy.
The Obama administration continues to resist calls to arm Syria’s rebels and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says plans to establish a no-fly zone over are “not on the front burner,” despite calls from rebel groups for protection from regime airstrikes.
But the U.S. has a strategic interest as well as a moral responsibility to aid Syria’s rebels, argues Bull, a former foreign editor of the UK-based Prospect magazine, and founder of Northern Gulf Partners, an Iraq-focused investment firm:
Assad is Iran’s chief friend in the region. He hosts a Russian naval base at Tartus, supplies Hezbollah in Lebanon and has significant American blood on his hands from Iraq. We have every interest in his fall. But it is the extraordinary potential of Syria to turn out well, to be a friend of the United States and serve as a model for nonsectarian coexistence, that should drive our policy.
Western assistance will also help counter the growing influence of jihadist and other radical Islamist elements within the Syrian opposition.
“Pro-American commanders in Syria who cannot provide weapons for their troops and buy fuel for their vehicles are emasculated,” Bull argues. “Those who can become important local leaders. It is not beyond our capabilities to aid these men in bringing down a despicable regime.”
Despite the regime’s fragility, there are other indicators that the conflict will be protracted and painful before prospects for democratic transition emerge:
The hope many Syrians felt in early 2011 — that rapid change was imminent amid an Arab Spring — has given way to a mix of defiance and resignation that the outcome may not be known for a while. Whereas many Syrians have sought refuge across the border in Turkey or Lebanon, putting their former lives on hold, others are pushing through sadness and fear to go on amid the fighting.
“When it was an uprising, they were always thinking it would come to an end,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who recently visited Syrian refugees at the Lebanese border. Now, he said, “they just take war as the constant, and then they plan accordingly.”
Former premier Hijab is one of a steadily growing number of defectors to head for Jordan, which has moved from a cautiously balanced approach to a fresh emphasis on the need for a “political transition” to end the conflict.
Jordan’s King Abdullah recently cautioned Assad that the “clock is ticking on a political transition”, the FT reports.
“In the last few weeks you have seen a series of shifts in the Jordanian approach towards the Syria crisis. We are now getting closer to the views of Saudi Arabia and Qatar [which openly back the Syrian rebels],” says Oraib al-Rantawi, the director of the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman.
The change, he says, is a sign of Amman’s growing conviction that the Assad regime is on its way out: “Jordan believes that Assad will not remain in power, and that the game is over.”
According to a senior western diplomat, Jordanian public opinion is a second key factor: “I think they [Jordanian officials] have found that public opinion in Jordan has shifted from disgust at what is happening in Syria towards regime change?.?.?.?[so] the public statements have shifted very slowly towards signing up to language that advocates political transition.”
Nevertheless, Amman is opposed to arming the Syrian opposition for fear of contagion.
“We are worried about retaliation. There is a history between Syria and Jordan that includes bombings and killings [by Syrian agents inside Jordan],” says a well-placed Jordanian official.
That concern, in turn, is part of a broader fear that the turmoil in Syria could spread across the border: “People are talking about a Syrian attempt to destabilise Jordan – and there are fears that Syria will at some point export its crisis into Jordan,” adds Mr Abu Rumman from Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies.
The regime’s “end game” is a way off, says University of Oklahoma analyst Joshua Landis, who believes that Assad’s ‘Plan B’ is to create a Syrian swamp:
Assad is likely to treat Syria as he did Iraq and Lebanon: he will work to break them apart. In 2005, a friend who was close to the regime told me that Assad and those around him were convinced that they could defeat President Bush’s attempts to change the regime in Syria. They said:
Bush thinks he can use Iraq against us. But Iraq is not a nation. We will help turn its factions against the US. It will turn into a swamp and suck the US in. This is what we did to Israel and the US in Lebanon in the 1980s.
Today, Assad will treat Syria as he did Lebanon and Iraq earlier. He will gamble that it is not a nation and will work to tear it apart.
“In order to survive,” says Landis, “Assad and his Alawite generals will struggle to turn Syria into Lebanon – a fractured nation, where no one community can rule.”
But as the military conflict enters Damascus and Aleppo – “the centers of the regime’s political, military, and economic power — the nature of the war has been transformed,” writes Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
The battles for Aleppo and Damascus demonstrate the opposition’s growing ability to organize, marshal, and sustain forces, as well as the regime’s willingness and capacity to respond with massive force to threats against its centers of power. Although Bashar al-Assad may cede territory in some areas and settle for stalemate in others, there are places where he will commit whatever resources he believes are necessary to suppress resistance.
The regime’s recent difficulties highlight a number of processes whose cumulative effects are wearing it down:
Escalating clashes in nine of fourteen provinces in July
Growing attrition in personnel and equipment from combat, defection, and assassination
Signs that its forces are losing the will to fight (surrenders, abandoning of positions, failure to press attacks)
Operational and tactical failures, including the loss of territory and positions
Loss of the infrastructure of control due to seemingly well-conceptualized rebel attacks (e.g., on police stations, checkpoints, border posts, intelligence and security offices, the headquarters of the Baath Party and the regime’s “Popular Army” militia)
Improving rebel military capabilities in terms of organization, numbers, and weapons
Attacks on state-run or associated media facilities and personnel, undermining Assad’s ability to control people and territory
The regime is likely to fragment “in the not too distant future,” he suggests:
Meanwhile, the opposition’s relative success has also brought challenges for the rebels. As they gain territory, they must govern and defend it. And when the regime moves to retake such areas, it is essentially unconstrained in its operations, applying air and artillery forces fully and without regard to civilian casualties.
In light of these circumstances, imposing no-fly and/or no-drive zones in Syria would be a major boon to the rebels — such a move would have the strongest and most immediate effect on the military and political situation because it would strike key weapons from the regime’s hands, bolster rebel morale and effectiveness, and give the regime a clear signal that its end is approaching. Failing that, the rebels could be given the means to offset the regime’s advantages, especially air-defense, antitank, and indirect-fire weapons.
“They have already demonstrated the will and ability to fight — better means would help them win that fight sooner, writes White, a former senior defense intelligence officer.