On Wednesday, an apparent suicide bomber in Damascus attacked a meeting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war cabinet, killing Daoud Rajha, Syria’s defense minister, and Asef Shawkat, who was the President’s brother-in-law. The attack was the most striking in a series of signs that Syria’s uprising has tipped into a full-blown civil war, as the Red Cross has now labelled it, with the war’s momentum now favoring the rebels. (The intelligence and access required for an attack to succeed against a crisis-cabinet meeting suggests that the rebels are running sources inside Assad’s security apparatus.) Other recent signals include sustained fighting around Damascus; the reported withdrawal of Syrian forces from the Golan Heights to combat the revolt; the spread of persistent violence to most of the country’s provinces, drawing in virtually every unit of the Syrian security services; and significant, accelerating defections of diplomats and military officers.
Assad is finished. What seems left to discover is how much time will be required before he is either killed or flees; how many more Syrian civilians will die before the war turns to a struggle for post-Assad ascendancy; and how much longer the United Nations, undermined by Russia, will continue to embarrass itself by failing to craft a political transition or reduce the indiscriminate killing of Syrian civilians by state-security services.
This sentiment itself is not new. For many months, it has been the blustery habit of Assad’s opponents, including those in the Obama Administration, to declare that the Syrian President’s time has come and gone. But those declarations have been mainly a form of political argument. Western governments have sought to persuade Assad that, realistically, any durable peace in Syria will require him to negotiate a departure from office, or perhaps an accommodation, such as the one that has taken place in Yemen, where the former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has left office but held onto considerable power.
Now, Assad’s coming demise seems less of an argument than an observation. It looks probable that the President will take his place among the war’s victims, at the hands of a coup-maker within his ranks, or else at the hands of a rebel attack, in the manner of Muammar Qaddafi’s death at the climax of Libya’s rebellion. It is conceivable that Assad could slip into exile, perhaps to a dacha outside Moscow, where deposed Soviet clients and spies used to settle into retirement and give the occasional bitter interview to a Western correspondent back during the Cold War.
In a structural, demographic, or resource sense, Assad and his fear-governed security state have always been the weaker party in the war. They represent a minority of the country’s population, the Alawite sect, with support drawn from other groups, such as the Christian community and business classes. (Rajha was a Christian.) The revolutionaries, drawn mainly from the Sunni Muslim population, draw upon the will of a demographic majority. More than a year after its start, the revolt also enjoys open and covert support from a number of very wealthy and resilient countries, including Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Assad’s geopolitical support team—Iran, Russia, and an ambivalent Iraq—are not as well positioned.
Also, because global public opinion is with the rebels and against Assad, Syria’s external allies cannot take the kinds of risks of direct involvement in the war that, for example, Turkey has undertaken on the other side. Turkey has staged rebel forces, nurtured the political opposition, and housed refugees, but it has suffered no international sanction for this. Russia has come under a hail of criticism for repairing a few Syrian helicopters. So not only are Syria’s outside allies weaker than the allies of the rebels, they are more constrained.
Early on in the rebellion—during the spring of last year, the Arab Spring—it seemed possible that Assad would overcome his disadvantages through strength of arms and, even more, sheer brutality. His father Hafez put down a rebellion by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, in 1982, by mercilessly slaughtering thousands of civilians. Bashar had cultivated a debonair, international image, but when the trouble started, he signalled through the violence he sanctioned that he would be his father’s son.
This time, however, almost incomprehensibly, young Sunni Muslim Syrian men and women have proved willing, day after day and month after month, to return to the streets and to the fight, even though Assad’s forces have often had superior weapons and have demonstrated as little conscience as Hafez. The BBC World Service’s “Newshour” is one broadcast that has sustained on-the-ground interviews by phone and Skype with Syrian rebels since the uprising began. Listening to these voices night after night—through static, translated from Arabic, with booms or the wailing of injured in the background—you could gradually hear and feel the intractability of the resistance. No degree of suffering or inequality of arms seemed able to break them.
As more and more Army officers, mainly Sunnis, have defected to the rebels, their tactics have improved. More recently, some units seem to have acquired anti-tank weapons.
It seems likely that we will learn in time that President Obama signed some sort of “finding” authorizing American covert action in support of the rebels earlier this year, even if the finding did not extend to the direct supply of arms to rebel forces in the field. Among other things, such a decision by the President would have been politically safe: Republican hawks on Syria, including Senator John McCain, would support it.
As it becomes clearer that Assad is doomed, it should become easier to persuade Russia to act. If Russia is to salvage any access to a post-Assad government, it may want to bargain away its intransigence at the right moment, in order to bring some post-Assad grouping of Alawite military officers to a political negotiation—if it is not already too late for that.
Political chaos and continuing violence after Assad seems almost guaranteed. A wide gulf has opened between the exiled political opposition and the commanders of the rebels on the ground; there are tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and other groupings; and regional militias are establishing themselves as provincial powers. It is not likely that the United Nations or other outside mediators will be able to broker a smooth transition. It may be possible—and it seems as imperative as ever—to use the final crumbling of Damascus as a way to deliver full-scale humanitarian aid, perhaps under a peacekeeping mandate.
Some commentators have compared the conflict to Bosnia’s multi-sided ethnic war, which lasted from 1992 until 1995 and claimed perhaps a hundred thousand lives. Often, the Bosnia comparison is cited to support arguments against international intervention in Syria on the grounds that the war is too complex. But another reading of the Bosnian example is that the United States and European governments overestimated the military and political power of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic for much too long. They misinterpreted Milosevic’s brutality as strength.
Something similar has taken place in the West during Syria’s uprising concerning Assad. He was always weaker than he looked. At last, we can see that he will go. The time has come to plan for how to support inclusive, stable politics and protect civilian lives when he is gone.