By far the longest and perhaps bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings, the conflict in Syria increasingly appears to be heading to a closing chapter as rebels score tactical wins against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Regime friend and foe alike now see the writing on the wall.
On Thursday, Russia – which, next to Iran, is Syria’s most important ally – admitted that the rebels could very well defeat the Assad regime.
“An opposition victory can't be excluded, unfortunately, but it's necessary to look at the facts: There is a trend for the government to progressively lose control over an increasing part of the territory,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov during Kremlin hearings. If the situation worsens, the Russian government is making plans to evacuate more than 5,000 Russians living in Syria. Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Assad regime’s collapse was “only a matter of time.”
As pressure on President Assad mounts, he faces four possible scenarios. He can fight to the end, flee Syria, negotiate with rebels – or, he can head for the mountains.
The Globe explored those scenarios with Professor Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies and author of the Syria Comment blog.
Fight to the end
Rebels have seized government air force and army bases across the country, gaining weapons and limiting the Assad regime’s ability to use its air power.
While large chunks of the country are now under rebel control, the capital Damascus has eluded anti-Assad fighters. But that could quickly change. Rebels control sections of the city outskirts and Damascus suburbs. They have been engaged in guerilla-style fighting and planting bombs inside the city.
President Assad’s armed forces mainly belong to the minority Alawite community and are often the best trained. More than protecting the president and regime, they have an even greater reason to fight: they fear reprisals by the Sunni-dominated rebel force in a post-Assad Syria.
“The Alawites convinced themselves that their group is going to [face] deep retribution and that these are Islamists that want to kill them. And that’s what the [Assad] regime has been saying and I imagine many feel very insecure. So they’re not going to lay down their arms,” said Mr. Landis.
Fighting until the end means having the weapons to sustain such a fight. Reports this week that the Syrian armed forces fired Scud missiles at targets in the north points to an escalation and desperation, some argue.
But the use of Scuds points to another theory: the regime is not being resupplied with weapons by Russia or Iran – in part, Professor Landis argues, because of the collapse of eastern Syria to the rebels and the closing of the overland route used to bring weapons from Iran through Iraq.
“They’re going to run out of money and run out of arms. That’s what we’re seeing with the use of these unorthodox weapons recently: Scuds, dropping mines from helicopters, TNT barrel bombs,” said Mr. Landis. “I think they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel here – using Scuds and stuff like that is not what you choose to do if you’re a military commander.”
Looming over a protracted military batttle is Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, which concerns western governments and Syria’s neighbors.
The head of the Syrian National Coalition, which was endorsed this week by over 100 Arab and Western countries as the legitimate and sole representative of Syrians, has said the Syrian opposition would consider a scenario in which President Assad steps down and agrees to leave the country.
Russia, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador are just some of the countries mentioned as possible destinations for an asylum-seeking Syrian dictator – although it is worth pointing out that Venezuela is currently focused on the health of its cancer-ridden leader, President Hugo Chavez, who is in Cuba undergoing treatment. Other countries might be more suitable.
“I don’t think he’s going to abandon ship,” said Professor Landis, quickly adding that there is only one scenario that could result in Mr. Assad leaving the country. “Once the Alawite leadership decides it has to negotiate, it would be very beneficial not to have Assads ruling - because the one thing the opposition has been very consistent about is they don’t want to speak to an Assad. They need the Assads to step down.”
If Mr. Assad had to leave suddenly – and a Damascus airport departure was not possible because it had fallen in to the hands of rebels – there would be no shortage of escape routes. The Syrian dictator could use a coastal airport or be driven to Beirut with the help of Lebanon-based ally Hezbollah – just some of the options available, said Mr. Landis.
Sit down and negotiate
Western and Arab countries are holding on to hope that a negotiated political settlement is still possible in order to bring an end the 20-month conflict that has killed an estimated 40,000 Syrians.
The alternative, these countries fear, is an Iraq-style sectarian conflict that could plunge the country in to chaos long after Mr. Assad either escapes the country or is removed by force.
However, negotiations might be near impossible so late in the conflict, when many rebels feel momentum is on their side. There is another obstacle.
“Assad is in Damascus. He is not going to give that away. [The rebels] have to take Damascus from him. He clearly still believes – and seemingly enough of his leadership believes – that he can hang on in Syria,” said Mr. Landis. “There won’t be a negotiating party until that idea has been beaten out of them.”
Head for the mountains
That is literally what the Assad regime could end up doing if staying in Damascus is no longer possible.
“The Assad family has been running the show for 42 years in Syria – and getting rid of them is going to be extremely difficult. They’re holding together this military venture and they’re going to back up undoubtedly to the Alawite mountains when they get shoved out of Damascus which I think will happen,” said Professor Landis.
The mountains are intertwined with Alawite history because they offer security and protection to those living there and in the coastal cities nearby. Latakia could be the president’s likely choice, said Mr. Landis, because the Assads hail from the region. Defeating remnants of the Assad regime in the mountain coastal region would be very difficult, argues Mr. Landis.
Among ordinary Alawites, the mountain strategy also continues.
“My wife is an Alawite and her parents have gone to the village which is high up in the mountains. And their strategy, when the other shoe drops, is that if they’re in the highest village, any bloodlust will be slaked in the lower villages which may get massacred and that hopefully by being in the higher villages they’ll survive,” said Mr. Landis.
With a file from Reuters and AP