Wednesday, July 18, 2012
In Syria, Assad Looks To Be Living On Borrowed Time
While it could be months before things finally play out, the tide in Syria seems to be going the rebel's way.
The latest sign of this was a suicide bomber (rumored to be a bodyguard or someone disguised as one) managing to penetrate Assad's inner circle and kill Syria's defense minister Daoud Rajha, his deputy the president’s brother-in-law Asef Shawkat, and Hassan Turkmani, a former minister of defense and military adviser to Vice President Farouk Sharaa.
While none of these men is going to be missed, it's worth noting that suicide bombings are a weapon used by al-Qaeda and similar organizations and are not, shall we say, a hopeful sign for the future, as Andrew Goldberg points out. The sort of people willing to be suicide bombers against the Assad regime today could easily hit a western target tomorrow, and that's especially true given the nature of the sort of people much of the Syrian opposition is composed of.
The rebels have gained some momentum as the regime has weakened and more troops from Assad's army have defected.Over the last few days the Syrian Free Army has gone on the offensive against the regime, and commander Riad al-Asaad ha reportedly ordered the Syrian Free Army units fighting in southern Syria and the outskirts of Damascus to converge on the capitol and take on Assad's forces there.
Another battle is shaping up in the key city of Alepppo, Syria's commercial hub.
In response, the Assad regime has had to move troops and armor around from outlying areas to counteract the rebel offensive. Assad no longer has troops to spare to control the entire country and is going to need to concentrate his forces to protect these main cities and the the Alawite areas to defend them against retribution by the mostly Sunni opposition.
The rebels are able to do this because they have attracted two important patrons in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who quite correctly see this fight in Syria as a proxy war against Shi'ite Iran and are now bankrolling the rebellion.
The rebels are also receiving arms and some training from the U.S, mainly via Turkey and Jordan.That in itself concerns me, since the two main opposition groups, the Syrian Free Army and the Syrian National Council are Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood affiliated. I remember what happened the last time America used Sunni extremists as proxies, in Afghanistan. It did not end well.
The end game in Syria could play out any number of ways. Unlike some other Arab countries, Syria is far from homogenous, and a number of scenarios are possible.
Assad has powerful patrons of his own and could easily retreat into northwest Syria, where most of the Alawites live. There's a decent chance that he could hold out there for some time, since that area contains Syria's commercial hub. It's also where a number of Christians live, and fear of an Islamist takeover has kept many of them loyal to the regime.
The Kurds, who predominantly live in the northeast in the area bordering Kurdistan in Iraq might also decide to wall off part of Syria with the help of the Persh Merga Kurdish forces next door. They dislike both Assad and the Islamist rebels and are likely to be strong enough to keep a nice chunk of northeast Syria to themselves, unless the rebels prevail and negotiate something attractive with them.
There are other minorities with their own agendas like the Druse to the south, and even the Sunnis, around 60% of Syria's population have a myriad of factions.
Syria was never really a country,but a province that fell into different people's hands as the centuries wore on. As a nation, it's pretty much an artificial contruct that has been governed by one military dictatorship after another. The Assads are just the latest ones.
It remains to be seen whether Syria even continues to function as a nation at all, whether Assad is ousted or not.