Syria is sinking fast in the morass of a bloody civil war. Last week’s assassination of four senior military and intelligence aides of President Bashar Assad’s in what was described as a suicide bombing of the “Crisis Cell”, entrusted with quashing the 16-month popular revolt, was a heavy blow to the regime. It coincided with a surprise infiltration by members of the Free Syria Army of the capital’s neighbourhoods in what was dubbed as “the battle for Damascus”.
Politically, the double Sino-Russian veto of a British-sponsored resolution that was based on Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter meant that U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan was clinically dead. The U.S. vowed to find other ways to act with its partners.
Political initiatives have now been exhausted. An offer by Arab League ministerial committee on Syria to Assad to quit in return for a safe passage was quickly rejected by Damascus. The regime has chosen to go all the way in its attempt to crush the armed rebellion.
Few days after the assassination of his defence minister and other inner circle associates, Assad was showing no signs of relenting. His army has pushed hard to kick the rebels out of Damascus neighbourhoods, using extreme firepower from the air and land. The rebels were forced to retreat from most districts in and outside the capital.
Smoke hovered over the city and reports talked about heavy civilian casualties. It was the same response elsewhere: in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, Aleppo, Der El Zour, Rastan, Zabadani, Latakia and Talbiseh. Tens of thousands of civilians fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. It is probably the final chapter in the revolt, but no one really knows how long it will last and what the end result will be.
The political impasse means that the regime will continue to rely on the backing of Moscow and Tehran, while the rebels are now receiving arms through suppliers from Turkey. Their main support comes from Gulf countries, Turkey and the U.S.
The Arab League has called on the opposition to form a transitional government, perhaps as a test to the unity of Assad’s enemies who comprise some 40 factions, parties and organisations.
There are signs that the Free Syrian Army has been infiltrated by jihadists and even members of al-Qaeda. Reporting from Beirut, British journalist Robert Fisk writes that rebel fighters were complaining that drug addicts and Salafists were now fighting with them, and they could no longer guarantee the safety of civilians if Damascus falls.
Fisk concluded that “sectarianism is biting into the Syrian revolution” and quoted a Syrian rebel as saying that “they are bayonetting people in the villages around Damascus”.
Women, he writes, have been raped outside the city of Homs by both sides. The rise of the Salafist element is a disturbing sign. The bombing of the “Crisis Cell” headquarters last week was claimed by the Free Syrian Army and Liwa Al Islam, a Salafist brigade believed to be active in the Damascus countryside.
It is not the day after Assad that is important now, but the day before. The regime claims that Arab fighters are now fighting the Syrian regular army. The banners of al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist movements were raised on “liberated” border points with Turkey and Iraq.
Media reports tend to portray the rebels as a united force, but that is certainly not true. It is also questionable that there is a chain of command extending between the Free Syrian Army headquarters in Turkey and fighters on the ground.
The biggest fear today is that the Syrian revolution is turning into a sectarian confrontation between Sunnis and Alawites. If the regime collapses at one point in the future, the biggest challenge will be to avert revenge killings.
One Saudi writer, Jamal Khashogji, suggested that an Arab peacekeeping force be dispatched to Syria to prevent sectarian killings and ensure the survival of the Syrian state. The latter issue is of utmost importance if the integrity of the country is to be preserved.
The fall of the regime would leave a huge vacuum that neither the Syrian National Council nor other opposition groups can fill. U.S. and European allies are reported to be working with opposition groups in an unofficial capacity to prepare for the day after the fall of Assad, with the aim of maintaining the state structures. But the reality is that no one really knows what will happen if the regime collapses.
There are many parties involved, including Israel which says it is ready to intervene to secure Syrian chemical weapons stocks. There is Iran and Hizbollah, Iraq and Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. A geopolitical earthquake in Syria would be felt by many.
There is also the issue of Syria’s Kurds who may be tempted to break away from the motherland.
Israeli strategists predicted that Syria could be divided along sectarian lines. The day-after scenario is difficult to determine. But with a divided opposition and reports of Jihadists now active among the rebels, no one should presume that the fall of the regime, which appears to have chosen the Samson Option, will end Syria’s woes and troubles.
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. The article was published in the Jordan Times on July 25, 2012