Monday, July 23, 2012

Is Assad finished?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

What with Wednesday’s assassination of three senior members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle (a fourth, National Security chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, died of his wounds on Friday); the takeover of major Syrian border crossings to Turkey and Iraq by rebel units on Thursday; the accelerating pace of high-level army defections; and reports of members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect fleeing to their traditional coastal heartland; it’s perhaps unsurprising that analysts are wondering aloud whether the regime is in its final days. While experts contacted by NOW Lebanon varied in their confidence of a quick victory for the opposition, they also argued that what will follow the defeat of the regime may prove no less vexing, for Syrians and the international community alike.

Michael Weiss, Syria specialist at the London-based Henry Jackson Society and occasional NOW contributor, believes that recent developments rule out the possibility of the regime’s survival. “Whatever else happens, the one safe bet is that Assad is finished,” he told NOW. “The fact that the rebels have gained control of the borders is huge. Turkey and Iraq, the way I think about them, are the [militant opposition] Free Syria Army’s barracks and weapons supplier, respectively. And another thing that people aren’t saying enough about is that the Turks have already created a de facto buffer zone along the border. Any helicopter that comes within three miles is chased away by Turkish F-16s.

“But the variables of how Assad will be finished are key. I’m not willing to make any long- or short-term prognostications at this point, simply because he could still use fighter jets, he could still deploy chemical weapons.”

Other commentators were somewhat more cautious. “I think it’s too soon to conclude that we’ve seen the end of the regime, but it seems very clear that the momentum has shifted in the opposition’s favor and the regime is now very much on the defensive,” said Steven Heydemann, senior advisor and Syria specialist at the United States Institute of Peace. “It has become almost impossible to imagine how Assad himself or the regime will recover from the setbacks of the past week.”

And Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes that the regime itself may outlive its current president. “Assad is finished, but I don’t know what ‘finished’ will look like or how long it will take; he might be finished, but the regime might not be. In terms of the end of the regime’s grip all over Syria, yes, that’s come to an end, but in terms of it existing on this planet, that could continue for a while over a smaller geographic area.”

Indeed, the week’s events have revived speculation that Assad may look to carve out an Alawite enclave in his co-religionists’ historical heartland along the Mediterranean coastline. A number of Alawites have reportedly already relocated to the so-called “Sahel” region.

But Heydemann is unconvinced. “I have to say that I don’t find that a very likely scenario, although I’m aware of indications that some preparations for that kind of move have been made. I have very significant reservations about the viability of that scenario, and it seems to me that even if key figures within the regime do decide to take a kind of last stand or try to establish some sort of semi-autonomous zone around Latakia, it’s going to prove almost impossible to sustain, and it strikes me as a very short-term strategy at best. My own feeling is that if the regime loses Damascus, it’s finished.”

Weiss was similarly skeptical, adding that there are large Sunni populations throughout the coastal region that would not readily submit to such an outcome.

Moreover, NOW has previously reported on myriad further economic and political impediments to such a move.

Elsewhere, the purported increased likelihood of a rebel victory has also sparked concerns about what are believed to be substantial quantities of chemical and biological weapons held by the regime. According to Charles P. Blair, senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, Syria’s “massive” arsenal includes “large stockpiles of deadly nerve agents, including VX, the most toxic of all chemical weapons,” in addition to blistering agents, mustard gas and “Scud missiles carrying warheads loaded with sarin nerve agent.” Tabler argued in print on Thursday that these weapons “could fall into the hands of Sunni extremists” as the regime’s control wanes.

However, for now at least, such scenarios are hypothetical. What, then, remains to be done for the rebels to clinch victory? “I believe it is critical for the opposition to continue activities that threaten the regime’s survival,” said Heydemann. “The only conditions that are likely to produce any sort of negotiated transition are those in which the regime is finally and decisively persuaded that it will not survive, and that the international supporters of the regime are persuaded that they need to back a process in order to prevent the country from entering a period of chaos and conflict.”

Weiss suggests a more direct approach. “The rebels need to storm the presidential palace, and they need to kill Assad and prove to the Syrian people that he’s dead. Then, they either need to kill or in some way incapacitate the remaining Baathist leadership.

“But in some ways, toppling the regime is the easy part. What happens the day after?”

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