In the dictatorship game, you know that you’re in trouble when you’re shelling your own capital. That’s what Syria’s Assad has been reduced to as the rebellion rolls on. Initially, it appeared the fighting in Damascus could have been a repeat of Homs – drawing the rebels into a head to head fight and giving them a pasting. Comments from rebel commanders suggested they didn’t want a stand-up stoush but were hemmed in. But, now, it looks different.
The first point was the introduction of the Muslim Brotherhood into the fight. This powerful, international movement had sat on the sidelines in Syria until now – as it did in Egypt until it was clear which way the cards would fall. They don’t have much of an existing fighting force but they will bring financing and connections for arms imports.
The second was seeing footage of the Syrian Army fighting in Damascus. They looked very poor, doing the ‘stand behind the corner of a building, stick your Ak-47 around the corner and fire wildly’ tactic that you see from amateurs. I suspect these were Alawite militia in army uniform. If that’s correct, that the regime is using amateurs on the frontline in a battle in its capital, it suggests that the army is having big manpower issues (not surprising given that the bulk of the army is Sunnis who have deserted in droves, with even Sunni generals and colonels defecting).
And the third was Assad’s war cabinet getting blown up. The loss of the Defence Minister, the Deputy Defence Minister, and a former Defence Minister along with the wounding of the Interior Minister and National Security Minister in what was either a suicide bombing or an infiltration leaving a briefcase bomb reminiscent of the 20th July plot is a hammer blow (if it was a remote control briefcase bomb, as the Free Syrian Army says, I wouldn’t be surprised if a foreign intelligence agency assisted).
It doesn’t simply deprive the regime of senior leaders. It makes every member of the regime feel vulnerable, which will see more resources diverted from the fighting to internal protection. And it makes everyone fighting for them reassess if they are on the winning side, and the consequences of being on the losing one. John Kerry once said ‘how can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?’ – there will be plenty of regime soldiers wondering if they want to be the last to die for Assad.
The Free Syria Army could have broken and faded after Homs – that was the regime objective in having a big stand up fight and giving the freedom fighters a hammering. That the rebellion has endured and grown seals Assad’s fate.
It’s a numbers game now and there are a hell of a lot more young Sunni men, many conscripts or ex-conscripts, than there are Alawite soldiers. The Alawites are a small, historically marginalised group that have only enjoyed power since Assad’s father’s coup.
The fact that the nominally heavily armed regime has been trying to import new helicopter gunships suggests much of its heavy equipment is inoperable. A year and a half of fighting wears out complex heavy weapons while it has given the Free Syrian Army a lot of battle experience. The regime has reportedly even pulled out units covering the contested border with Israel to join the fighting in Damascus – that’s how serious its situation has become.
Are we seeing the regime’s final days? Still hard to say.
This isn’t like Libya, where the country’s geography and ethnic lines lead to a series of rebel-held areas, and a single main frontline moving toward Tripoli and a final fight. In Syria, the ethnic lines are blurred and the geography doesn’t lend itself to a ‘frontline’. It will have to end in an uprising in Damascus, and it will require the local Sunni population standing up to the Alawite militias.
It looks like that is happening now, with the local population backed by a veteran core of the FSA trained and equipped in Turkey. If a collapse comes in the regime, it could be very quick. If the regimes soldiers and militia start melting away from the fight, then it quickly becomes a case of not being the last man left holding the regime’s flag.
If the Damascus fighting should ebb with the regime still in charge, I think the next big event will be Turkey establishing a buffer zone within Syria. This could have happened after the Turkish jet was shot down (and Assad knew it, which is why he publicly said he wished it hadn’t happened) but another pretext will be found if it is wanted. This would give the FSA a much larger safe base of operations and encourage more Syrians to join the fight knowing that their families are protected from regime revenge. It would be a huge prestige blow to Assad and further stretch its military.
And if the regime collapses in the coming days? Well, then things will get interesting. The Syrian opposition is comprised of several groups, liberals and islamists, Sunnis and Kurds, and, now, the Muslim Brotherhood. Hopefully, Libya and (to a much lesser extent) Egypt prove that heterogeneous opposition groups can peacefully hold elections and create a government after a revolution.
It’s not pretty and perfect, of course, but that’s true of any fledgling democracy after dictatorship. So far, the Arab Spring has proven that transitions, however incomplete and testy, can occur in former Arab dictatorships without the anti-faction regimes turning their guns on each other.
PS. Since I wrote this, it’s becoming clearer that the regime is collapsing. All border crossings with Iraq are reportedly in FSA hands. Assad is thought to have fled Damascus for a coastal town in the Alawite heartland. Footage is appearing of freedom fighters dancing on disabled, out more likely abandoned, regime tanks as more cities say they have thrown of the regime yoke. Damascus will probably fall in days. The Alawite areas in the north east will take longer and take assurances of fair treatment from the new government before they hand over the remains of the regime.