Entrenched for sixteen months, President Bashar al-Assad has been incessant in identifying the Syrian rebellion as a disorganized coalition of external forces supported by Western governments; motivated by American and Turkish interests. Kofi Annan, UN special envoy in Syria, failed to bring a ceasefire in his efforts; neither has the UN Security Council proposed any viable solutions. The United States and NATO smell blood in the water; Russia and China sense the loss of a key ally in the region. To date, 17,000 people have been killed in the violence, and the regime appears to be in its final days.
The conflict exists on two separate levels. The first is a diplomatic standoff—Washington, Mocow, and Beijing have conflicting objectives in the region and continuously fail to agree on action. The real crisis though is on the battlefields on the streets of Homs, Houla and now Damascus. The armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army, consists mainly of army defectors and terrorist mujahideen that have crossed the Iraqi border, loosely united by the Turkey-based Syrian National Council.
On June 30th, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared Russia would only support terms for a ceasefire that would promise regime continuity. This has placed formaldehyde on resolving the turmoil that has taken over Syria and the country has fallen into a bloody civil war.
The al-Assad regime, supported by Syria’s Baath Party, has always preferred that the window into Syria remains opaque. Bashar al-Assad and his late father Hafez al-Assad portrayed Syria as a source of regional stability for nearly half of a century; Hafez al-Assad was infamous for ruthlessly eviscerating political dissidence. However, pleas from Bashar al-Assad similar too, “as long as you have terrorism and as long as the dialogue didn’t work, you have to fight…they are killing your people and your army,” have grown more commonplace. Bashar al-Assad’s recent concessions may not be hyperbole; in late June, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari confirmed that al-Qaeda operatives from Iraq had infiltrated Syria’s southern border to join the rebellion.
Momentum for the Free Syrian Army is at record high after numerous recent high-profile Baath Party defections. Generous reinforcements regularly infiltrate the Syria-Iraq border and are supplemented through the Syria-Turkey border; the regime’s loyal Officer Corps, consisting predominantly of fellow Alawites, is no longer facing grassroots opposition, but a formidable guerrilla force. Now that the fight has reached Damascus, the regime’s days appear numbered. The July 18th bombing by the Islamist group Liwa al-Islam (Brigade of Islam) and the FSA that killed al-Assad’s Defense Minister and Deputy Minister should not be celebrated as a victory for those seeking an end to the crisis in Syria.
Ha’aretz reported last month that Bashar al-Assad had a chemical weapons arsenal—this presents a grave threat to Israel. While Syrian security forces are being overrun by the rebellion, the stockpile is susceptible to capture by Islamists within the FSA or, worse, Hezbollah militants. An accidental attack on a Turkish air force reconnaissance plane on June 22nd contextualizes the dangers of defections amongst al-Assad’s ranks. The regime maintains an advanced and intimidating arsenal. Although the FSA has made gains in Syria’s capital, there is no indication that a coup d’états will translate to greater regional stability; it might only deepen conflict.
An international plan must be implemented that will insulate the situation in Syria. Violence cannot pour into neighboring Lebanon because of the fragile political situation there. By committing peacekeepers to protect critical areas along the Syria-Lebanon border, the chances of a weapon’s transfer from al-Assad to Hezbollah are significantly reduced. Instead of the taking responsibility for rebuilding Syria’s government, the US should follow China’s model development that is being used in Afghanistan. This strategy promotes private economic development and non-government institution building. Currently, the least bad option for the US is to not get involved with the FSA. The Obama administration should let Russia decide the fate of its ally Bashar al-Assad– but if they wait too long, he will be dead.