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18
Dec
2011

Is There an End in Sight to the Syrian Regime?


Events in Syria seem to have reached a stalemate. On the one hand, the regime is failing to quell the civilian rebellion against it, while on the other hand, the opposition to Bashar Assad cannot yet be seen as an alternative to the regime.

Indeed, the apparent Free Syrian Army (FSA) had signaled cracks in the coalition of forces rallied around Bashar Assad, certainly in his most powerful bastion. However, it looks as if the FSA has lost its momentum and has not been successful in rallying entire units of the Syrian army to its cause. Up until now, army desertions have been decisions made by individuals who have rallied against the regime on a personal level, mostly Sunni recruits and professional soldiers/officers who joined the ranks of the FSA due to their resentment against the Alawite regime and its behavior in cracking down on the opposition.

As a result, a stalemate has been reached between the parties. Opposition forces, as well as the regime, are unable at this point to project enough power to tip the balance in their favor. Such a situation could mean that Syria is entering a stage of civil war that could last an indefinite time. This in turn would mean that Bashar Assad would still run the country in the near future and that his accelerated fall and the demise of the Alawite regime could only be the result of a massive intervention by external forces that seem to be active today but have not yet decided to upgrade their activities against the regime.

A similar stalemate was reached in Libya a few months ago. It was NATO’s decision to implement a no-fly zone and the massive U.S. intelligence and command assistance given to the rebel forces in Libya, as well as air strikes conducted mainly by French and British forces, that finally tipped the balance and brought an end to the Gaddafi regime.

However, at this point one should exclude the foreign military intervention option. Syria is not Libya and its army is well trained to face such an extreme situation. In order to succeed, military action against Syria would have to be a replica of the Iraqi scenario, which is very unlikely today.

Moreover, such a scenario could quickly degenerate into a regional conflict, as referred to by Assad himself in some of his interviews and speeches, and allow him to escape from his doomed fate. A military attack on Syria by a Western-led coalition could trigger a reaction involving Iran and Hizbullah that could very quickly focus on Israel, which would thus become the scapegoat of the Syrian regime. This scenario could develop quickly into an armed conflict, with dire consequences for all parties involved.

Having said that, there is still room for covert operations conducted by special forces; arms deliveries; intelligence collection; operational command training, and other means that could transform the FAS into a formidable enemy of the regime. The FSA is already enjoying a safe haven in Turkey, where its forces are being trained before being sent to combat zones. One can easily assess that such activity already exists on a small scale and it could become important with the mobilization of greater combat forces against Assad.

Since a “greater” military option is unlikely at present, it seems that the only way to fight the regime from the outside resides in a combination of political and economic actions against Syria. Such actions are already being carried out, but they need to be intensified in order to put significant pressure on the regime and to force Assad to decide about radical options. How long can Assad survive an international boycott, Arab rejection of his regime, and widespread castigation of his brutal behavior?

How long will his security forces and army rally around him before he is asked by his generals to step down, as in the case of Egypt’s Mubarak, Yemen’s Salah, and Tunisia’s Ben Ali? Even worse, in a grimmer scenario, where will the gunman who will shoot at Assad come from if not from his closest associates, in order to protect their own interests?

On another level, how long will it take the U.S., France, and the UK to convince Russia and China to turn away from Assad and allow effective sanctions at the UN Security Council?

The longer the rebellion continues and succeeds in hitting institutional and security targets, the more Assad and his praetorian guards will be weakened. Eventually they will be forced to make painful decisions – step down, go into honorable exile, or end up like Gaddafi.

About Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.
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