Commentary

Is It Endgame for Assad?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

News of the killing of several senior Syrian government officials over the weekend has sparked a serious discussion about whether the days of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime are finally coming to an end. Taking place against the background of escalating conflict in the Syrian capital as well as other cities, the killings seem to have convinced many regional observers that the options for Assad and his regime are coming to an end. However, just like in Libya and Yemen, much uncertainty remains about the opposition’s ability to unify itself, the remaining strength of the regime and how international actors will react to the shifting dynamics.

In an op-ed for Arab News, Fawaz Turki expresses the view of many other observers when concluding that “the veneer of invincibility that the regime has projected in its relentless attempt to suppress the Syrian people’s uprising is now punctured....If the fighting in Damascus continues, and the rebels hold their own, then the battle for the capital has truly begun and the struggle for Syria is well on its way. We may not be far off, in other words, from seeing the revolution having its day and the regime its eclipse.”

Taking for granted that Assad’s days are numbered, Al Hayat’s Hassan Haidar provides an analysis of the reasons for the regime’s collapse: “The heir to the Syrian presidency has made poor use of his inheritance, squandering what his father had spent decades to impose through force and cunning, and turning all the opportunities that were afforded him since he took power in 2000 into disappointments at his performance, as well as gratuitous enmities....Even its ally Hezbollah did not hide its irritation when the regime stole its ‘victory’ in the July War of 2006…. Bashar Al-Assad has demolished the temple over his own head.”

Similarly, the Saudi Gazette editorial blames “Bashar Al-Assad and his close circle…living in their own psychological bunker for much of the last 16 months. A protest over the arrest and mistreatment of graffiti-spraying children led to popular protest....Surely [the killing of senior government officials] must have come as a hammer blow to Assad. But has it been heavy enough to crack the shell of unreality in which the Syrian dictator has isolated himself?...Or has he retreated deeper into his bunker, cutting himself off even more from all but a select group of trusted aides, who can be relied on to tell him only the good news that he wants to hear, and thus prolonging Syria’s agony?”

There are signs that even Syria’s closest allies — Russia, Iran and Hezbollah — are beginning to hedge their bets, although many wonder if they will ever fully ditch Assad. For example, Raghida Dergham, in an article on Al Hayat, wonders whether “Moscow [will] change its policy after the Damascus bombing…. The quick succession of crucial developments on the Syrian scene has brought international players back to the strategy drawing-board, some of them confused, some of them angry, and others eager to reap the rewards or to adapt to the new situation. Russia stands at the forefront of those defeated and affronted, not to mention outright confused.”

Tariq Al Homayed, on the other hand, contemplates the implications for Tehran: “Now that Iran is beginning to sense defeat in Syria, it has begun to feel that the Arab Spring is nothing but a curse against it, after it previously viewed this as a ‘gift from God.’ This is also what Hezbollah in Lebanon is sensing, as revealed by Hassan Nasrallah’s most recent speech....Iran will not only be weakened regionally, but also domestically as well, and the hard-line Tehran regime will find itself facing a singular truth, namely that it has lost the most important project it launched following the Khomeinist revolution, namely its control over Syria.”

Of course, along with talk of an imminent collapse of the Assad regime, some have turned their attention to the options still available to Assad. The Gulf Today editorial, for example, spells out the embattled leader’s options, which do not seem to include victory: “Assad himself must be considering a range of choices in the face of the armed rebellion that has seen a surprising surge in recent days. The options before Assad, they say, includes fight to the death to keep Damascus, a fallback to his Alawite strongholds or even exile abroad....Assad could opt for exile, with countries including Russia, Iran and Belarus often mentioned as possible destinations. If he does exercise this option that could leave behind powerful regime figures who would either continue the ill-fated fight or try to make a deal with the opposition.”

However, some insist, given the state of the Syrian opposition, that it might be too soon to speak of a post-Assad Syria. As the Arab News editorial cautions, “For all their success, the opposition still remains pathetically divided. When Assad’s police state tyranny is overwhelmed, there seems precious little chance of any sort of united administration taking its place, until elections can be held. Indeed, the single aim the opposition parties all share is the overthrow of Assad. Once that becomes a reality, there will be nothing to bind them together and Syria could find itself in a dangerous vacuum.”

Finally, the Gulf Times editorial reflects on the state of the main domestic players and whether Assad can count on them, suggesting “the immediate implication is that the regime’s foundations — namely the military and security forces — have been shaken severely and are showing signs of fracture and vulnerability. It can no longer be taken for granted that core elite groups are solidly loyal to the Assad regime....How the battle in Damascus will unfold remains unclear. The FSA and associated militias do not have military capabilities to match the regular army....With the apparent disintegration of the regime, the question becomes what forces will emerge in its place.”


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