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The crumbling regime of Bashar al-Assad is desperately trying to secure a perimeter around Damascus to halt further advance by rebels buoyed by a recent string of tactical victories, enabling them to capture loyalist bases and seize some heavy weapons.
Politically, a fragmented opposition is closer to cohering behind an embryonic transitional government than at any time since the Syrian uprising began nearly 21 months ago. Is this the endgame for the Assad clan?
“The regime is cornered,” judges one top Arab security official. Even officials in Russia, Syria’s most important international ally, have started murmuring that they see no way out for President Assad. But 40,000 deaths into this bloodbath, with millions of Syrians displaced by the violence, there is still plenty of fighting to come.
How long the conflict continues depends to an extent on what the external actors in this drama now do. The Friends of Syria – the loose international forum arrayed against the Assads – holds its fourth ministerial meeting in Marrakesh next week. Can it find ways of accelerating the erosion of the regime and bolstering the opposition?
So far, the anti-Assad international camp has midwifed a new, more cohesive opposition, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, now recognised as the legitimate leadership of Syria by France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf states, with more countries, including the US, expected to follow soon.
In addition, after receiving “credible intelligence” that Assad forces may be preparing the option of using chemical weapons against their opponents, the US and its allies have warned of immediate “consequences” were they actually to do so. Nato, for its part, has agreed to move Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries to the Turkish border.
But there is little sign of intermediate measures – between embracing the National Council and threatening an assault on loyalist forces – that could hasten the implosion of a regime that is offering tantalising glimpses of decomposition.
There are, for example, signs that the cohesion of the Alawites, the heterodox Shia minority around which the Assads have built their security state, is unravelling. In October, there was a shoot-out in Qardaha, the ancestral home of the Assads, between rival Alawite clans. One well-placed source in Latakia, the port city at the foothills of the Alawite mountains, says the trigger was the discovery that one of Mr Assad’s cousins, a powerful militia leader, was found to be selling arms to the rebels.
Certainly, the Alawites are paying a heavy price to keep the Assads in power, however fearful they are of retribution should Syria’s Sunni majority topple them.
The brutal response by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to the popular revolt is exposing failures in international policy
The Syrian opposition, in which Sunnis in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular dominate, has not done enough to convince the Alawites, and other minorities such as the Christians, the Druze and the Kurds, that their future is assured in a plural Syria without the Assads.
Part of the reason Syria’s minorities are fearful is that they see Islamist forces gaining influence in rebel ranks. While western powers hold back, Qatar is arming and financing the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Saudis are aiding more radical jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the spearhead behind several recent rebel gains.
This equation could change were European powers, for example, to start funnelling anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to selected rebel units, which their intelligence people on the ground should by now have had time to identify. Better armed, the rebels stand a better chance of widening the fissures within the loyalist camp – of splitting the regime rather than defeating it outright.
Unless the rebels get western help before it is too late, moreover, it is the black flags of the jihadis that will dominate the battlefield – with consequences not just for Syria but the region.
Friends of Syria apart, the international powers also need a more compact steering group devoted to Syria’s future – and that seeks to include Russia, which is showing signs of exasperation with the Assads, and renewed interest in the opposition.
“You need everybody who is part of the problem to be dragged into the solution,” observes one European foreign minister. “Otherwise they’ll be spoilers.”
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