The rebels’ capture of airfields and military bases has speeded up the collapse of President Bashar al-Assad's regime
This picture, taken on Decermber 5 2012, shows a fire inside an apartment, right, of a damaged building due heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, SyriaPhoto: AP
By Shashank Joshi
7:53PM GMT 06 Dec 2012
Over the past century, civil wars have been getting longer. Between 1900 and 1944, they tended to last just one and a half years. By 1999, they stretched to an average of 15. Will Syria, like Libya’s eight-month revolution, defy this trend and wrap things up within two years? Or, like Lebanon next door, is it fated to be a catastrophic slow-motion implosion that will plague the region long into the future?
The answer remains unclear, principally because the end of the regime’s grip on Damascus is not the end of the story. We might see a messy retreat of loyalist forces out of the capital and towards the Levantine highlands and coastal plains. Or the civil war might mutate into a fratricidal battle pitting the anti-Assad jihadist factions against moderate rebels, or Kurds against Sunnis, or militia against militia.
Now, the good news: these disturbing possibilities notwithstanding, we are witnessing the beginning of the end for the Assad dynasty, the last republican monarchy of the Middle East. And events, as they often do, are moving quicker than our policies.
At the end of November, the CIA is reported to have estimated that President Bashar al-Assad had just eight to 10 weeks left. With our attention on Gaza two weeks ago, we missed the turning of the tide. Syrian rebels of all stripes began over-running military bases on a daily basis. They seized heavy weaponry like artillery and tanks, and acquired sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons, which they immediately put to use by shooting down jets and helicopters.
As the regime haemorrhaged airbases, not only did this sap the government’s key advantage – airpower – but it also set in motion a virtuous circle: the spoils of war taken from one base made it easier to capture the next one. What all this means is that Syrian rebels are no longer just harassing checkpoints or sniping at convoys. They are an increasingly potent fighting force with at least some of the appurtenances of a conventional army.
Then, after months of indecisive fighting around Damascus, the capital came under intense attack. The airport was rendered unusable, EU and UN diplomats left the country, and the regime compounded its isolation by shutting down the internet. According to the New York Times, Russian envoys to Assad “described a man who has lost all hope of victory or escape”. And he is not the only one: this week the regime’s most senior Christian figure, foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi defected. Meanwhile, the deputy foreign minister visited Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador – presumably to search out opportunities for convivial asylum.
Amidst these developments, we have struggled to respond. The US, emerging from its election-season paralysis, is agonising over how far it should support the opposition, let alone intervene militarily. It was spooked last year when it realised the blurriness of the division between moderate and extreme rebel groups on the ground. Britain and France are mulling over the provision of arms, on the basis that the risks are outweighed by the importance of shoring up moderate rebels. Turkey is deeply frustrated, having failed to secure a no-fly zone. By the time everyone makes a decision, the whole thing could well be over.
The unprecedented rebel military advances mean that we must start thinking about the endgame itself. We should avoid the illusion of control. We have only limited influence over the direction in which Syria goes, but there are constructive steps we can take. Although Assad would gain little from using chemical weapons, desperate regimes make strange choices. Last year, Colonel Gaddafi pointlessly fired ballistic missiles toward rebel-held territory a week before his regime collapsed. In 1991, Saddam Hussein lobbed 42 missiles at Israel. Nato’s deployment of the Patriot missile defence system to Turkey is therefore prudent.
However, the greater danger is that chemical weapons are seized by extremist groups, whether Hizbollah, which has been training close to some storage sites, or Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Unless we can be sure that Syrian army units guarding chemical weapons will retain absolute control, it may become necessary to secure, remove or destroy at least some of the stockpiles. This would require a US-led Jordanian force, assisted by trusted Syrian rebels, with Britain and other states likely playing a role. If rapid destruction or removal is impossible, then the sites should be protected by Arab forces. A large-scale Western footprint would be unacceptably dangerous, and should be ruled out entirely.
In the interim, we should be reasserting the offer of safe passage for Assad. However improbable, it would be far preferable to a last stand which leaves Damascus in ruins. We should also be thinking of ways to protect Syria’s minorities, particularly Assad’s Alawite sect, from what could be horrific retribution. Regrettably, this can probably only be done by keeping the Syrian armed forces from dissolving or being disbanded, as occurred in Iraq in 2003. We should also be unafraid of talking to Russia and Iran about these contingencies. There is little to be gained by ignoring potential spoilers.
Over the coming months, there is every chance that Bashar al-Assad will receive a bullet in his back – very possibly from his own side. When that occurs, let no one say we were unprepared