For the Syrian people, whether Assad is on or out , see no big difference. The problem here is how to end the current situation as soon as possible.
When a dictatorship cannot regain control over a country in revolt for 18 months despite repeated offensives, when it cannot police the countryside away from the main roads, cannot secure the capital or its main trading hub, cannot even protect its innermost citadels and has to pull troops from its borders to protect its palaces, it is finished. This is the case with the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, who is still trying to kill his way out of the crisis, even as poorly armed rebels swarm through Syria’s cities and his supporters melt away. He is finished.
Last week’s insurgent bombing of his security cabinet in Damascus was devastating. He lost at least four of his top enforcers, including his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, the brains behind the Assad clan and reportedly also his cousin, intelligence chief Hafez Makhlouf, brother of Rami Makhlouf, the financier of the enterprise.
Of itself, the bombing is not a game-changer; the Assads still command far superior firepower. But its emblematic power is irresistible. On top of the stream of defections and desertions from the Syrian army, the regime now has to contend with informers who have infiltrated its inner sanctum. Until the July 18 attack, the Assads had managed to instil terror of retribution inside the castle walls. Now it is they and their entourage who are running scared.
This was not just a deadly blow to the security establishment. It struck the Assad clan network, the mix of security state and gangster enterprise that makes up this regime. Family, clan, predatory business interests and the security praetorians are all enmeshed.
Maher al-Assad, the president’s volatile younger brother, commands the army’s only two reliable strike forces, the Fourth Armoured Division and the Republican Guard – made up, like the security services, mainly of the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong, a heterodox branch of Shia Islam in a country that is three-quarters Sunni. But even the shabbiha, mostly Alawite militia built around smuggling gangs that have been carrying out sectarian cleansing in the Alawite heartlands in the north-west, are often led by the president’s cousins and relatives, such as Nameer al-Assad in Latakia.
The supply of Assads is not inexhaustible, and some at least of their followers must be wondering where they are taking them. This month’s defection of Manaf Tlas, a Republican Guard general, stripped away the regime’s last Sunni veneer. The Assads’ decision to unsheathe the sectarian knife, to corral Syria’s minorities into its camp, has destroyed the fiction that it is the vital antidote to Sunni extremism. As minority Kurds, Christians and Druze start drifting towards the opposition, this is now a straight fight between the Alawites and the Sunnis – and their foreign backers.
Iran and Russia have stood with the regime, but they cannot fight its battles. In the Sunni camp, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have stepped up aid, with the US in the background. Rebel forces have gained momentum since late spring and have crystallised into provincial commands. How much fighting there is to come depends on the cohesion of a shrinking regime. Loyalist forces have over-run two districts of the capital after 10 days of fighting but meanwhile Aleppo, the commercial capital, has erupted. The Assads cannot be everywhere at once.
When they do fall, there is natural concern about what will replace them – especially since the Wahhabi Saudis and Qataris are directing their support towards the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Yet despite the regime’s slaughter of (mostly Sunni) civilians, and a few attested rebel atrocities, there have been no mass reprisals against the minorities. This suggests discipline and deliberation by opposition forces on the ground: the regional military councils and the local co-ordinating committees of activists driving the civic uprising. As in Libya, an international alliance against the Assads may have something to work with.