Is Syria headed for all out civil war? Hard to tell, but there are ominous signs that a tipping point is not too far away.
The total media blockade imposed by the 41-year old Assad family dynasty has made it virtually impossible to get a clear picture what is actually taking place inside the country because journalists have been denied entry. However, this much is known from what little hard information has made its way out.
Syrian human rights groups collectively agree that since the uprising began 3 months ago, over 1,400 civilians have been killed, over 3,000 wounded, 11,000 detained in makeshift prison camps, and over 7,000 (with maybe twice that number still waiting to escape) have fled over Syria's border into Turkey.
Refugees unable to reach the Turkish border are facing increasingly dire, life-threatening conditions since the government refuses to permit the United Nations or other international relief organizations into the country to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis. Consequently, the death toll is mounting daily.
Based on smuggled reports and videos out of Syria reaching Beirut and other Arab media outlets virtually every Syrian town and city, including Homs, Syria's third largest city and Hama, its fourth largest city (and site of the infamous 1982 massacre of 20,000 Syrians by Assad's father, Hafez) are encircled by Syrian tanks which are firing indiscriminately into these towns in a bloody, but increasingly futile onslaught to silence opponents of the regime into submission.
But the two largest Syrian cities - Aleppo and Damascus - where the majority of Syria's Sunnis live, are restive, but not in open revolt.
There are enough substantiated reports indicating that Syrian helicopter gunships are machine-gunning civilians who courageously defy curfew orders to disperse, and Syrian intelligence snipers and elite Iran Revolutionary Guard members are shooting deserting Syrian soldiers who refuse to turn their weapons on their fellow citizens.
Additionally, after each targeted city or town is surrounded, Syrian forces are engaging in a scorched earth policy of isolating them, burning crops, cutting communications, electricity, food supplies, water, and then rounding up or shooting entire families. Mass graves have been found, and there are unconfirmed reports that Syrian military forces are actually cremating bodies to conceal evidence of torture.
It is evident that the younger Assad is trying to replicate a multi-city version of his tyrannical father's Hama massacre in what one observer asserted is a "calibrated bloodbath."
More ominously, reports are surfacing from many northern towns of defections among lower ranking Syrian Sunni soldiers, whom the Syrian government alleges may have committed the killing of 120 police and security officers in the besieged northern town of Jisr al-Shoghour. Of course, these reports of alleged "armed rebel" mutinies could be nothing more than fabrications by the regime designed to bolster popular support against the uprising. However, no one really knows with certainty who was responsible for the killings of the security officers, yet conspiracy theories abound.
It is increasingly clear that the sheer brutality of the regime's crackdown in rural Sunni populated regions has opened up dangerous fissures within Syria's military -- the glue that maintains the minority Alawite regime's fragile grip on power.
The Syrian army's lower ranks are drawn mostly from Syria's majority Sunni population (75% of Syria's citizens are Sunni), who report to the Alawite officer corps controlled by the Assad regime itself. If reports from several northern towns under siege are accurate, increasing numbers of Sunni soldiers are defecting in protest against ordered attacks on their own home regions and then turning their guns on forces loyal to the regime.
The broad-based revolt may be soon reaching a tipping point. As each day passes, the regime's military cohesion is being stretched to the breaking point as it furiously deploys increasingly demoralized military units from city to city and civilian leaders, including religious leaders, are beginning to defiantly speak out against Assad.
To buttress his overstretched forces, Assad has turned for help to mercenary imports from Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Iran is resupplying Syrian forces and Tehran has deployed 2,500 members of the Guard's Al Quds Force to provide intelligence and logistics support.
There are also reports that elite members of the Guard's Quds Force have been deployed with Assad's brother Maher, who commands Syria's elite 4th Division and its Revolutionary Guards Corp which is spearheading the regime's counteroffensive against the protestors.
As refugees flow into Turkey, Syrian opposition forces are organizing in the Turkish seaside town of Antalya. In recent days, the newly proclaimed 300 member Syrian Transitional Council has drafted a communiqué demanding that Assad cede power to his Vice President until a transitional government is formed and a new constitution is prepared.
Is this nascent exiled opposition yet a credible force capable of bringing down the regime? Not yet and not likely. Most of the Council's members are long-time exiles and have not participated in the uprising.
What may really determine Assad's fate and mark a tipping point in the uprising is what Syria's Sunni, Christian and Palestinian populations decide to do against the regime. None of these groups are fiercely loyal to the Assad dynasty. Rather each group has been a grudging participant in a marriage of ethnic and religious convenience to the minority Alawites who control the much reviled and greatly feared state security apparatus of repression. If the army disintegrates their respective marriages with the regime are gone with the wind.
While his internal situation deteriorates, Assad has twice tried to stir up trouble with Israel by authorizing Palestinian refugees to march on the Golan Heights frontier with Israel. The ensuing violence resulted in scores of Palestinian deaths - all instigated by a regime determined to prove that its existence is vital to the region's stability. Assad is desperately trying to prove he is "too big to fail."
Even more ominously, I have been told by reliable intelligence sources in Jordan that Assad has secretly approved reopening Damascus Airport as a transit point to any Iraq-bound Al Qaeda member bent on stirring up trouble inside Iraq against departing American troops and Iraqi forces - as he did during since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March, 2003. Secretary of Defense Nominee Leon Panetta disclosed at his Senate confirmation hearing that over 1,000 members of Al Qaeda are now operating in Iraq. They all did not enter Iraq courtesy of Assad, but some have and more will.
By reopening Al Qaeda's Underground Railroad to the Iraqi border since the uprising began, Assad is also calculating that the U.S. will refrain from taking any overt action against him in exchange for shutting down Al Qaeda's Iraq assembly line. Once again, Assad is trying to prove he is "too big to fail" to the Americans in addition to the Israelis by playing his typical double cross against the U.S.
One thing is clear, the regime appears to be losing internal legitimacy among vast swaths of Syria's population as reports of intra-communal clashes escalate even if the U.S. still can't reconcile itself yet to this inevitability.
Syrians, however, are realists. They have first-hand knowledge of the communal strife and civil wars that have afflicted their neighbor to the west (Lebanon) and their neighbor to the east (Iraq). No one wants Syria to confront these same histories and Syria's opposition fully understands that threat is no idle proposition . If the regime does implode will it become the Middle East nightmarish version of a disintegrating Yugoslavia?
There is a real danger that the minority Alawites would become the target of majority Sunni retribution. Christians could face similar discriminatory acts akin to what their Coptic brethren are now facing in post-revolutionary Egypt. There could be major population migrations affecting Palestinians, Christians, Alawites, Kurds and Sunnis affecting Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
Clearly, this is why Washington is holding out realpolitik hope that Assad will hold on to power
But hope is not a policy in today's volatile Middle East.
The troika of regional players who were once determined to stand by the regime (Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia) are now down to but one (Saudi Arabia). Both Israel and Turkey have come to realize for their own reasons that Assad is incapable of putting the genie back in the bottle and they are quietly exchanging views on a "Plan B-Post Assad Era."
If both Turkey and Israel are reconciling themselves to Assad's demise, it is incumbent on Syria's other neighbors to collectively attempt to contain any communal and regional fallout.
The U.S. can demonstrate some sorely needed far-sighted leadership by working with Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and other nations to put a contingency plan in place to prepare for a potential implosion, and begin reaching out to the Syrian opposition to promote a peaceful transition which reconciles each of Syria's ethnic groups with their post- Assad aspirations.
Based on all of its rhetoric and conduct to date, the White House remains straight-jacketed in the mistaken belief that Assad can hold on for the long run. OK, even if the Obama team is holding out against Assad's downfall, what prevents it from undertaking any contingency planning?
With military intervention rightfully off the table against Assad, a realistic assessment of who may pick up the pieces after he goes and under what conditions is exactly what we should be doing now before it is too late to affect any dire outcome.