The assassination of Syria's Defence Minister and several other high-level government officials on Wednesday is a shocking illustration of just how close the country is to becoming a sectarian wasteland. The question is whether the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, faced with an otherwise inevitable bloody end, may yet be induced to negotiate some sort of transition for itself and the country.
As they contemplate the future today, amid the wreckage at the National Security building where the attack occurred, images of the beating and summary execution of deposed Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, and the grim imprisonment and debasement of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, must weigh heavily on the minds of the President and his inner circle. Increasingly, this is what awaits them.
The immediate response to the assassinations, which occurred at a high-security facility, strongly suggesting it was an inside job, will be some form of retrenchment. Despite clear signs of crumbling power, the regime still has loyal troops and outguns its opposition. There is no easy escape for regime members; it is late in the game even for defections. The best solution would be a negotiated settlement, and Russia would be seen as the most sympathetic facilitator.
Still, it is a rare dictatorship that is able to see when the jig is up and consent to negotiations to end its rule, even gradually. Little more than a year ago, President al-Assad had that opportunity. Syria's opposition was by and large peaceful, and its efforts were directed at a loosening of regime rule and gradual economic and democratic reform. On the basis of very little evidence, the President was still seen by many Syrians as being possibly sympathetic to such reforms. Minorities, especially Mr. al-Assad's own Alawi sect, but also Christians, Druze and Yazidis, all had good reasons to fear what a post-Assad Syria might look like, and many remained loyal.
The regime, however, did then what authoritarian regimes almost always do: It responded to the demands with violence. Now – with signs that the resistance has spread to those on the inside, and evidence that increasingly unsavoury players are involved – comes the regime's last chance. The end of the Assad regime, welcome as it may be, will be messy, and the dangers for the world real.