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Ending an era in Syria

Published:Monday | January 14, 2013 | 12:00 AM

By John Rapley

There is very little that can be predicted with confidence about Syria, save for the fact that the days of President Bashar al-Assad are now numbered. We can't say when he will fall from power, nor what his final fate will be (though it doesn't look pretty). But ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin washed his hands of his erstwhile Syrian ally late last year, the last major external pillar of support was pulled out from under the Damascus regime.

Assad is reportedly so isolated that some reports suggest he sleeps in different rooms each night, so fearful is he of getting killed. His regime's core has narrowed to a small circle of diehard loyalists from the same religious sect. His military's operational capacity is declining, and he is struggling to hold the capital city, Damascus. Outer parts of the country appear permanently lost to the regime.

But if the writing is clearly on the wall for the world's last Baathist regime, it is far from clear what will follow. The opposition is fragmented, and united principally by opposition to Assad. Take him out of the picture, and there's little to suppose that Syria won't descend into a civil war of the sort which fragmented Lebanon a generation ago.

In fact, if one treats the Damascus government as but one faction among the many, it is reasonable to say that Syria has already moved into this phase of its existence. The principal difference between then and now is that Damascus has chemical weapons, and an apparent willingness to go down fighting.

Meanwhile, although the rebels have made gains, their internal divisions have inhibited the emergence of a cohesive opposition, of the sort Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was able to provide in that country's revolution. Equally, Syrian air power has made it difficult for the rebels to consolidate their advances. A vicious stalemate seems to be developing, in which neither side can tip the balance.


Nor will external firepower likely disrupt this painful equilibrium, as happened in Libya. NATO allies are moving missile batteries to the Turkish border with Syria, but this is principally as a defensive measure to support an alliance member, Turkey. There is little appetite in the West to intervene directly. Besides, since Syria's air defence is far more formidable than Libya's was, the cost of doing so would be very high.

On top of all this, even though Assad may not last much longer, there remains some internal cohesion in the regime which will make it difficult to dislodge. A large bureaucracy, not to mention an extensive security apparatus, is composed of regime loyalists who need to be wooed over to the opposition side. At the moment, the opposition, convinced it can ultimately claim a complete victory, shows few signs of such compromise. But that sets the scene for a long and brutal war of attrition. Even if it loses Damascus, regime remnants can retreat to the coastal zone, which they control, and fight a rearguard.

Russia and the US seem to be gradually converging towards a diplomatic orientation that would see the opposition engage dissident elements in the regime. This could avert the worst case. But for both countries, which were once rival superpowers in the region, the result would signal yet another diminution in their regional presence.

The Mideast balance of power continues shifting. Iran, close to the Assad regime, finds itself ever more isolated. A Sunni axis, led by Egypt, Turkey and latterly Qatar, has taken advantage of the situation to beat back their Iranian rival. Israel, meanwhile, is more isolated than ever, and surrounded by hostile territories that now harbour Islamist foes. On the other hand, Israel now has no conventional military rival that threatens it. Iran comes closest, but Iran has few friends in this new Middle East.

And the US and Russia, which once carved up the region for influence, will find themselves competing for attention.

John Rapley, a political economist at the University of Cambridge, is currently on a visiting professorship at Queen's University in Canada. Email feedback to and