Is it the beginning of the end in Syria?

There is little doubt that Syria has descended into civil war.

Updated: Jul 20, 2012, 14:39 PM IST

Dubai: The attack by a suicide bomber which killed Defence Minister Dawoud Rajiha in Damascus on July 18, and injured several other top security officials, including the interior minister and the intelligence chief would appear as though the last wave of the Arab Spring has hit hard.

There is little doubt that Syria has descended into civil war. To validate the obvious, recently, and belatedly, the International Red Cross Committee has deemed the uprising a non-international armed conflict.

In response, as witnessed by network footage, the Assad regime continues to unleash heavy artillery and helicopter gunship attacks on rebels and civilians alike. The rhetoric from the West and the Arab world has been vociferous, but effete. Multilateral efforts to restore peace and negotiate an orderly exit for Assad have all but failed. The political movement in exile, The Syrian National Council, has been gaining ground, in part, due to defections of some senior members of Assad`s coterie.

But, on balance, it has been unable to galvanize world powers to construct a viable plan to evict Assad, an Alawite - a sect of Shia Islam, who has ruled Syria for over a decade, presiding over a predominantly Sunni population. Against this background, The Free Syrian Army - the mosaic of rebel fighters across Syria - had probably come to the ineluctable conclusion that it`s on its own.

Now, the end-game scenarios for Assad are dwindling, as rebel forces enter Damascus. So, what is the geopolitics of the conflict, and what might the end game for Assad look like?

Geopolitics of the conflict

Broadly, the Western powers of the UN Security Council support the rebels and are desirous of a regime change, while China and Russia have routinely exercised their veto to block UN resolutions that call for tougher economic sanctions, boots on the ground, and a transition plan for Assad.

Specifically, Russia resists invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, a provision used by the West to overthrow Libya`s Gaddafi. Russia is a staunch Assad supporter, if only for geopolitical reasons. Its relationship with Syria has been capricious since the 1950s, but has endured on the back of Syria`s strategic location and its perennial purchase of Soviet and Russian arms and weapons systems. Russia is keen to maintain a physical presence in the Middle East, and access to the Port of Tartus in Syria, provides it with a beachhead. China has steadfastly stood with Russia and voted against US-sponsored resolutions against Syria. As far as the Gulf States are concerned, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates side with the US and would like to see Assad go. They foresee such an outcome resulting in a weakened Iran. Officially, Iraq is neutral in the Syrian conflict, but the relationship between the two is fragile. Baath party rivalry among them had led to decades of estrangement.
However, Iraq`s Shia led government backs the Assad regime while remaining cautious about the Sunni-led opposition. In the Levant, Turkey, a former Syria ally, has turned against it. It has called for economic sanctions, and harbours the opposition. Both countries are hostile to each other, but neither can afford a military escalation. Israel is unequivocally against Assad.

In Lebanon, the Shias and Alawites support Assad while the Sunnis, who are concentrated in the North, support the rebels. Jordan has come out strongly against the crackdown, and King Abdullah has called for Assad to step down.

Multilateral efforts fail

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the two multilateral efforts to find a solution to the current crisis have failed. The Arab League`s monitor mission ended abruptly in January, and Kofi Annan`s subsequent foray seems destined to meet the same result.

By the Special Envoy`s own admission, his six-point plan to end the crisis in Syria has failed to find a political solution. His plan was to kick-off with a ceasefire in mid-April between government forces and rebels before transferring executive powers from Assad to an interim government. Unilateral action by the US, Europe or an Arab State is unlikely. It would lack legitimacy.

Further, Europe is consumed by the Euro crisis and the Obama administration will not risk a go-it-alone play in the lead-up to the November elections.

In the face of the stalemate wrought by entrenched positions and slim possibility for unilateral military intervention, it seems likely that a combination of the strengthening of the Syrian National Council and the tactical victories of the Free Syrian Army will eventually bring down the regime.

There is a preponderance of evidence to support this theory. In the past week, the Syrian ambassador to Iraq - Nawaf Fares, and former brigadier general of the elite Republican Guard - Manaf Tlass, defected. Both are regarded as scions of the Sunni elite and part of Assad`s inner circle.

The signalling effect of these defections could provide an impetus for those sitting on the fence (and there are many) to follow suit, marking a turning point in the propaganda war, and giving the Syrian National Council the upper hand.

Simultaneously, the Free Syrian Army is coalescing into a sophisticated fighting force. It has appointed military defectors to lead rebels across Syria`s provinces. Its command and control is becoming more organized, and it is able to communicate with the disparate group of rebel forces across the country.

Recently, it claimed to have gained the ability to intercept government messages.

The US supports the rebels but is hesitant to intervene to assist them because it is unsure of the composition of the rebels and their purported links to hard-line Islamic groups.

Nevertheless, there have been reports suggesting that the US is assisting the Free Syrian Army with operations and logistics, but it has stopped short of sharing intelligence.

The recent revelation of the mobilization of Syria`s chemical stockpiles has worried the US, and bolstered its rationale to have a channel of communication with the Army, as a reliable source of first-hand information.

So, how might the downfall of Assad play out? There are four ways this might go. The first is an exit co-ordinated by Arab states whereby Assad bows out and lives in exile. Such was the fate suffered by Saleh of Yemen.

The second could be similar to the course of events that played out in Libya, where limited multilateral military intervention ended a stalemate, and tipped the balance in favour of the rebels. Next, although highly unlikely, is the scenario that Syria might split into zones of influence controlled by the Sunnis, Iran and Hezbollah, and the Kurds.

Finally, and most likely, is the scenario where the Army makes huge strides in edging the government out of major cities on the back of funds and hardware provided by Gulf States, the US and other countries (as of yesterday, it appears that the fight for Damascus has begun). In such a situation, Assad will hold out long and hard, but will eventually be forced to decamp.