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Nikolaos van Dam: The Syrian regime is rapidly running out of options

So long down the road, what options does the regime have to bring this crisis to an end? For almost five months now, there have been protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. First, they were asking for nothing more than peace, freedom and unity. It was only afterwards that they demanded the downfall of the regime.

The truth is there are not many options, both for the regime, and for their opponents. The regime could try to talk to the opposition, but the problem is that its proposed reform measures regarding multi party democracy and changes to media law simply haven’t gone far enough.

The most significant thing it could do is to stop violence and suppression and see what happens. If demonstrations continue, which they probably will, the regime might lose control over cities – but it would at least provide a better climate for a resolution to the crisis. The dilemma for the regime is if it really does reform, it will lead to its own downfall.

One resolution would be for elements from within the military to move against the regime. Several times we have seen officers break away, but without units they are powerless. And any move against the regime would be extremely difficult, and those behind it would likely be uncovered and killed. Another possibility is civil war, which nobody wants and would bring even more destruction. I have the impression that there are armed groups which have tried to exploit the situation and to jump onto the bandwagon; like Syrian Salafists who have been fighting in Iraq. These groups want to re-establish Sunni dominance in Syria, a country where they are the majority. The present Alawite-dominated regime is considered by many Sunnis as heretic. So it's also important that countries take Syria more seriously when it says it is fighting terrorists.

So what options are there for the international community to force Assad’s hand? There have already been mis-steps. The US is powerless and is not really communicating directly with the regime; their ambassador visited Hama and has lost his position as a neutral. The Turks announced in advance that they were going to convey a tough message. But if you want to influence the Syrians, the dialogue has to be confidential to at least have a chance.

Military intervention is not going to work. Libya is relatively speaking, an easy – albeit thus far not really successful - operation, but in Syria where and who would they attack? Sanctions don’t work, and may even worsen the situation. So we are back to dialogue. And here the voice of Saudi Arabia may prove to be very important.

Nikolaos van Dam is a former Dutch ambassador to various Middle Eastern countries. The fourth edition of his book 'The Struggle for Power in Syria' was released recently