Unlike any other Arab country, Syria holds the key to several conflicts in the Middle East. The future of the Iran-led "resistance block" (along with Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas), stabilization in Iraq, the conflict with Israel, as well as Turkey's "new eastern policy" all depend on what will happen in Syria in the wake of the ongoing uprising. Now, after eight months of protests, with thousands of people killed, tens of thousands arrested and no end in sight, what can be done to stop the carnage and inhibit, if not end, Iran's direct intervention to keep Assad in power and extricate Tehran from Damascus through a regime change? A general look at the scene suggests six major elements that characterize the current situation in Syria which make it unlikely for Syria's President Assad to stay in power.
First, as the crackdown continues, international sanctions, though still far from crippling the regime, have started to drain the regime's economic as well as diplomatic resources. Oil revenues will dry up as export contracts largely expired in mid-November after the European Union implemented a ban on Syrian oil. Turkey, which has held the United States from taking action against Damascus in the hope that Assad will make reforms, has also finally abandoned Assad. Not only has Turkey hosted the establishment of the Syrian National Council (SNC) by opposition groups in Istanbul, but Turkey is also currently conducting military exercises on the Syrian border, with plans in place for a possible occupation of northern Syria to provide a safe haven for refugees and military defectors to escape the killing.
Second, the regime has lost legitimacy and is unlikely to restore it. Unlike democracies, authoritarian regimes can still maintain legitimacy through means other than being elected as representatives of their people, particularly by providing basic public goods and services. Assad's loss of legitimacy was not, therefore, for "failing to lead a democratic transition," as President Obama stated in mid-July, but the result of the regime's gradual failure to deliver public goods and later the indiscriminate killing of its citizens, especially when the sanctions continue to undermine the patron-client relationship that the regime has maintained for decades with the business elite.
Third, the majority of the Syrian people are being increasingly alienated. It is not unusual for authoritarian regimes to face dissent but the ability to crush protests is always situation-specific. In 1982, Bashar's father, Hafez Assad, quelled a revolt in the city of Hama by killing an estimated 20,000 of its residents and his regime survived for two more decades. In 2011, the recurrent, though qualified, victories of Arab revolutions as well as the media scrutiny (social media in particular) has emboldened the protesters and restricted the regime. Even if the protest is crushed now, the hatred that the government's violence has fed makes it only a matter of time before protests are resurrected with even greater force.
Fourth, the prospect of a civil war looms large on the horizon. Syria's Alawites ruling minority and the Sunnis are becoming mortal enemies. Random killings against the civilians are committed not only by the government forces but also by members of the Sunni and the Alawite communities against one another. With the rising toll of civilian deaths, protesters are becoming more militant and people on both sides are buying weapons which are being smuggled in from Lebanon for self-defense and offensive operations. Uncontained, such a situation runs the high possibility of turning into another post-Saddam Iraq, where vendetta prevails between the Sunni and Shiites.
Fifth, there is military defection. Though figures have not been quantified accurately, there is no question that a growing number of the Syrian military's rank-and-file (mostly Sunni) are now defecting for refusing to shoot upon their fellow civilians. This is a very bad omen for the regime. Not only is defection contagious, threatening the coherence of the regime's backbone, but there is the likely chance that these combat-trained soldiers could soon form the base for an organized armed opposition supported by the international community, paving the way for a regime change a la Libya.
Sixth, the Arab initiative to end the violence in Syria has reached an impasse. On November 12th, the Arab League suspended Syria and imposed political and economic sanctions at their Cairo meeting due to the Syrian government's continued violence against protestors. After nearly two weeks of wrangling between the two sides, Damascus and the Arab foreign Ministers failed to agree on a plan that would permit 500 monitors to enter the country. The Arab states rejected what it saw as Syrian efforts to change drastically the Arab League's peace blueprint which also called on the Syrian government to immediately remove troops from cities and towns and conduct negotiations with the opposition. The failure to reach an agreement made it more than likely that the Arab League would recognize the opposition in Syria, once unified, as the sole representative of the Syrian people, very similar to Libya's National Transitional Council.
Combined, these elements lead to the conclusion that it is already too late for the Assad regime to make reforms or lead transition in Syria. Though practically doomed, the regime, the Alawite elite, the military and internal security remain resilient and generally united and will almost certainly persist in the crackdown, in what they see as a fight for their own lives and tinged with the unrealistic hope that the tide can still change in their favor.
The international community cannot sit aloof while the massacre continues in Syria, as a largely peaceful demonstration is not likely to succeed in toppling the government on its own. Thousands of Syrian people will continue to be killed either at the hands of Assad's security forces or in sectarian violence. Meanwhile, a Libyan-like international military intervention does not appear feasible as the United States (in the midst of presidential elections) and the EU have no desire to get involved in yet another Middle East conflict, especially one laden with dangerous geopolitical complications and unforeseen consequences.
A coherent strategy is urgently needed to ensure the fall of the Syrian regime and the strengthening of the democracy-seeking protests in Syria while substantially eroding Iran's grip on Damascus.
First, fearing that he may meet Gaddafi's fate and concerned that he may never regain the legitimacy needed to lead, President Assad might be willing to negotiate a safe passage and immunity from prosecution for himself, family, Alawite leaders and several dozen of his top military, internal security, and intelligence personnel. This is particularly urgent as it would need to occur before Assad and his brother are indicted by the International Criminal Court, which can happen as soon as charges of en masse killing are brought against them. Once Assad is indicted (and fearing that he will be caught and stand trial) he will be discouraged from opting for this course. For this reason, the Obama administration, in consultation with its allies, (in particular Turkey) should fully and aggressively explore this option with key Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where Assad might find safe haven and spare his country from racing ever so rapidly toward the abyss.
Should these efforts fail then other, severe measures must be considered. The international community will have to intensify the sanctions on Syria. With or without a new Security Council resolution the US and the EU must make sure to close all the loopholes and make the sanctions smart enough to target the Syrian leadership and its ability to utilize its weapon and communication systems. Moreover, failing to reach an agreement with the Arab League (in particular Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE whose merchandise exchange with Syria is close to 40% of its international trade) are more likely now to impose their own sanctions similar to Turkey.
The United States and the EU should help (and at the same time pressure) the newly formed Syrian National Council (SNC) to become a more organized and representative body of the Syrian people and its political, ethnic, and religious mosaic. The SNC must close ranks, offer a clear vision of a future Syria and an unambiguous alternative to the current regime with a specific agenda and form a "shadow government." Indeed, for the Syrian people to rally around the SNC they must have a clear sense where and how such a body is planning to lead Syria post-Assad's era. An empowered SNC, viewed as a viable alternative which demonstrates cohesiveness and a capability to manage a peaceful transition, could then receive international recognition and support (already offered by Turkey and foreshadowed by the Arab League) which would further embolden the protesters, galvanize Assad's illegitimacy to rule, and speed his departure.
The U.S. should lead a coordinated effort to provide material support through Turkey to the protesters. While not necessarily arms, certainly logistical support, aid, and protection for the besieged communities along the lines of the Berlin Airlift of 1948-9 would be in order. Facing the full fury of the regime's security machine, Syrian protesters need to fight in self-defense and feed their families. If the international community cannot help with the former, it certainly can with the latter. Moreover, to silence Syria's air-defense system, the United States needs not launch air strikes but could instead employ cyber-warfare, an option it considered against Qaddafi's Libya.
Perhaps most importantly is the Iran factor that has become extraordinarily more worrisome to the U.S. and its allies as the Syrian regime is becoming increasingly more dependent on Iran's material, logistical and military support. For Iran, maintaining its grip on Damascus is central to its ambitions to become the region's hegemon exercising unprecedented influence over a contiguous landmass extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, especially as Tehran is coming closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. This dimension has far-reaching implications for the security of US and its allies in the Gulf and presents an imperative, historic opportunity for the U.S. and the Gulf governments to ensure a transition of power in Syria.
Only through a regime change in Damascus will Iran's exploitation of Syria's heterogeneous make up in pursuit of its hegemonic ambitions (as it has, and continues to do, in Iraq) be stopped. A stalwart suspension of Syria by the Arab League would, no doubt, open the door for bolder Western intervention to further isolate the Assad leadership and send a clear message to Iran that it will not be allowed to have a free hand in Syria.
The choice between "Assad regime-or-chaos" is no longer relevant, if it has ever been. The US with its European allies, especially Turkey, must now muster all possible means to end the slaughter in Syria. It is certainly a tall and most complicated order. There is, however, no other viable option that would also limit, if not end, Iran's direct involvement in keeping Assad in power and spare the region from a potential war that could involve Iran and Israel.