The Assad End-Game In Syria: When He Goes, Nobody Knows

on January 07 2013 7:01 PM

The appearance of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before his people and the world on Sunday was his first since June 2012, and it could be his last. His speech, translated fully here, seemed an exercise in, at best, grandstanding, and at worst, disengagement from reality in a country where government forces are firing on neighborhoods of civilians. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement that he was “disappointed” in Assad’s speech, which he said did note “contribute to a solution that could end the terrible suffering of the Syrian people.”

To Assad’s many detractors, it seemed he was practically begging to be hanged upside down on a meat hook. All the signs of late – from the Free Syrian Army’s capture of much of Aleppo province to the winning of international support by the opposition coalition – ­ have indicated that said meat hook, metaphorical or not, may be swinging ever closer. The question merely remains when it will strike. And it’s a question that no one can really answer.

“In terms of the regime’s control over all of the country, I think that’s a limited time span,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. “Whether it’s weeks or months, that I don’t know. Whether he will still be president of part of the country or a rump regime, that depends on the international dynamics and of the Alawite community.”

“From his speech, we can infer that he is still trying to extend the time,” said Sawsan Jabri, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Expatriate Organization, a pro-democracy advocacy group based in the U.S. “He is trying to head more toward war, so we are not expecting it to end anytime soon. We expect it will intensify in the Damascus area.”

“I don’t think anyone can give an accurate time frame,” said Sarab al-Jijakli, a spokesman for the National Alliance for Syria. “The only thing we do know is that everything that happens in the diplomatic arena will just delay the inevitable."

A diplomatic solution, al-Jijakli said, was out of the question at this point. “Everything we’ve seen from the international community in terms of diplomacy has only bought time for Assad to regroup.”

Jabri said that activists have been reporting clashes in the Damascus suburbs, and that the Free Syrian Army has been slowly and steadily gaining ground in the capital's metropolitan area. “He [Assad] is still in control of only a small section of Damascus,” Jabri said. “Basically just his palace and the surrounding area.”

Reports point to a strengthening rebel hold on key parts of the country. Jabri said that according to her map, 60 percent of the Aleppo province and much of the Damascus suburbs were now under rebel control. Al-Jijakli was even more optimistic: According to him, 75 percent of the country is in rebel hands.

We will really know the end is near when the rebels control not only the ground, but also the sky, Tabler said. “I think when the rebels can keep aircraft from flying into certain areas and bombing targets, that will indicate truly liberated territory,” he said. “That would be a milestone.”

“On the ground, we’re seeing slow gains across the country,” said al-Jijakli, who noted that over the last few months the Free Syrian Army has focused attention on combatting air power. The shift in strategy has led to a tightened FSA grip in key locations. “We’re going to see more gains by the FSA in the country, and Assad’s forces will solidify their grips in the center of cities,” he said.

Jabri said it was her understanding that Russia has begun reducing Assad's arms support, but al-Jijakli noted that Kremlin was still pushing forward with its own proposed peace process, and that based on the speech, Assad was most likely receiving assurances from somewhere that his interests were being taken care of.

“He’s losing, but as for how long, we can’t tell until we figure out how much supplemental help he’s getting.”

The “supplemental help” for Assad and his cause came in the form of political and military support from Iran. Sources on the ground told Jabri that Lebanon's Hezbollah, which has backed the Assad regime, has also sent another 5,000 militants into Syria, although it’s unclear how well equipped  these men are.

“His defiance is coming from somewhere,” al-Jijakli said, “and partly it’s that the international community has being coalescing around this notion that there needs to be some sort of slow transition in the country. We don’t believe that’s the way forward.”

“Without any international interference or pressure on him, I feel that he is now trying to manipulate [the facts] and is still defiant,” Jabri said. “He is completely not in touch with reality. He is still acting like a winner when on the ground, he is a loser.”

If Assad manages to keep his head but not his crown, the question remains where he will go. Tabler said there could actually be a few options.

“I think Tehran could be a place,” he said. “Venezuela, Indonesia, Malaysia have all been discussed."

“The problem is, if you take him in, it’s a liability for you in a post-Assad Syria,” Tabler continued. “And that makes it hard if you have business interests in a post-Assad Syria. I don’t think anyone’s keen to take in someone who’s butchered so many of his own people.”

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