Alan George: Power vacuum in Syria favours Assad

Rebel forces have finally brought the battle to Damascus. But there's little appetite, internationally or regionally, to topple the regime

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Just before the first street demonstrations erupted in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad declared his country "immune" from the Arab Spring. When tens of thousands of ordinary Syrians took to the streets to demand peaceful reforms, he dismissed them as bit-players in a plot orchestrated by unnamed foreign enemies. When they took up arms to defend themselves from his tanks and knife-wielding thugs, they were just "terrorists" to be crushed.

Sixteen months and 16,000 deaths on, Assad's delusions persist. Interviewed by German television this month, he asked: "If the people were against me, how could I still be in my position?"

The considered response is that he might not be "in his position" for much longer – although it's still too early to say that his downfall is either imminent or inevitable.

Until now, Syria's two key cities, Damascus and Aleppo, had been largely untouched by the uprising. Last weekend, however, the conflict arrived in Damascus in earnest. By Tuesday it had reached the city's very core. The Free Syria Army (FSA) – the main rebel coalition – declared that it had launched Operation Damascus Volcano, claiming that hundreds of fighters had infiltrated the city in preparation for the onslaught.

The conflict has clearly entered a new phase. This was underlined by Wednesday's killing of the Minister of Defence, his deputy, and two other key security figures, in a bomb explosion in the National Security Bureau in central Damascus. It was a humiliating blow to the regime. Especially grievous was the loss of the Deputy Dfence Minister, Assef Shawkat, who was married to the President's sister, Bushra, and had been at the heart of the Syrian security establishment for years.

The FSA claimed responsibility; so did a previously unheard of Islamist group, the Brigade of Islam. But the nature of the attack was what really mattered. It required the highest-level information about the movements of some of the regime's most sensitive figures; and it took place in one of the most heavily guarded buildings in the country. It spoke volumes about the regime's vulnerability.

While government spokesmen swore retribution, helicopter gunships strafed and rocketed residential areas of Damascus. In one attack on a funeral procession, at least 60 people were killed.

Yet despite the dramatic events, the struggle for Syria may have a long way to run. Nevertheless the past week has boosted rebel morale. Syrians who until now have sat on the fence may now be more inclined to throw in their lot with the opposition. Defections from the armed forces have reportedly increased in recent days.

Yet there are still no signs of the mass defections from the military and from security agencies that would definitely spell the regime's imminent demise. Key units are dominated by the President's Alawite community, which remains solidly with the regime. Accounting for some 12 per cent of the population and concentrated in the coastal mountains, the Alawites – a heterodox Shia splinter group – fear that a rebel victory would bring sectarian mayhem, as Syria's majority Sunnis took revenge.

In addition, Christians, who constitute around 10 per cent of the population, continue to be broadly supportive of the regime, fearing the Islamic fundamentalism that is a major strand in the rebel movement.

The Kurds, however, making up another 9 per cent of the population and concentrated in the north and north-east, detest the regime. But they have their own nationalist agendas involving autonomy or even independence.

External players are unlikely to play any decisive role in bringing the crisis to a close. The centrepiece of international activity has been the much-vaunted six-point peace plan formulated by the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, acting as the joint representative of the Arab League and the UN. Calling for a ceasefire and a peaceful transition to democracy, the plan was doomed from the outset. This regime is engaged in a bitter and ruthless struggle for survival, using the same vicious methods it has always used.

Russia and China have stymied any effective UN Security Council measures, using or threatening vetoes of any resolutions that call for Assad to step aside or that might lead to outside military intervention. And it could be that Russia's obduracy serves the West's purposes. Despite the hand-wringing over Russia in Western capitals, there is scant appetite for military action. Moscow provides a convenient fig leaf for the West's dithering.

By all accounts, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the only outside states providing sorely needed weapons to the rebels – doubtless a factor in their widening operations.

Decisive outside military intervention is thus not in prospect, however beneficial it might be in hastening the end of a brutal dictatorship, in curbing the potential for sectarian war, in reducing the risk of the conflict spilling over into the wider region and in limiting the scope for extremist jihadi factions to gain footholds in Syria.

Regionally, the Assad regime can continue to count on its long-time ally, Iran. To the west, Lebanon's Hizbollah-dominated government remains supportive, as does Iraq, to the east. These friendly neighbours have declined to participate in regional and international sanctions, significantly undermining their impact.

For now, the regime can hang on, albeit at terrible cost to the populace at large. Short of a major acceleration of defections of military and security forces to the rebels – and no one can predict if or when such might occur – the stalemate is likely to persist for months to come.

Dr Alan George is a senior associate member of St Antony's College, Oxford, and author of 'Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom' (Zed Books, 2003)

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