Syria endgame

Rebel fighters observe Spanish Luis Munar (3rd R) during a training exercise at an undisclosed location in Syria on October 28, 2012. An international network of expatriate dissidents from Syria agreed to finance the trips of the former air force man, who left a spiralling economic crisis in Spain, and headed to the war-torn country. The network put him in touch with the Al-Faruq Brigade, which groups some 12,000 fighters countrywide, as well as with the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army's milit

The authorities in Damascus might understandably ignore Thursday’s statement by the head of NATO that the Syrian regime is “approaching collapse.” They might also dismiss the comment by Iraq’s finance minister that the end of the Assad regime is a matter of weeks. But when Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy foreign minister and his country’s Middle East envoy, says that a victory by the Syrian rebels “cannot be ruled out,” officials in Damascus should sit up and take notice.

In recent weeks and months, the armed opposition has been reeling off a string of accomplishments on the battlefield. The individual incidents might not constitute spectacular victories, but taken as a whole, they indicate that the momentum has shifted in dramatic fashion. The rebels continue to control wide swathes of the country in the north and east, and in central cities such as Homs and Hama, government forces haven’t been able to achieve any kind of “victory.” Meanwhile, the rebels have relentlessly pounded away at military and government facilities in Damascus, controlling large areas in the eastern areas of the sprawling capital.

As the Russian official noted, the Syrian government is simply losing large parts of territory to the rebels. The developments on the ground have spurred one of the last remaining embassies – Pakistan’s – to close down, as the Russians have now begun making plans to evacuate its nationals from Syria, as Bogdanov acknowledged.

The regime’s response to the situation has been predictable; Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad recently said that life is normal and that Assad enjoys the support of the majority of Syrians.

This flagrant level of denial leads one to ask who is actually in charge in Syria, and whether the authorities are truly aware of what is taking place on the ground. The recent military momentum by the rebels was probably one of the reasons behind the declaration of support for the Syrian exile opposition by some 130 countries, during a meeting this week in Morocco. The rebels have become so confident that in some quarters, they brazenly state that they don’t require much in the way of international support – they argue that their tactic of capturing the regime’s own weapons and ammunitions stockpiles means they are defeating the regime without the aid of a no-fly zone or safe haven.

As opposition leader Ahmad Moaz Khatib put it, the Syrian people “handled their problems by themselves. They no longer need international forces to protect them.”

The latest appraisal of the situation by Bogdanov signals the following: Russia needs to accelerate its efforts to convince Assad that the game is over. A failure to do so would hurt Moscow’s position in a post-Assad Syria even more, since it will be responsible for the loss of life and destruction that take place from now on, following Thursday’s admission that the tide has turned.

Russia must put its weight behind a serious effort to ensure that Syria’s state institutions remain intact in any transitional phase, dramatic or otherwise, so that Syria does not take the recent paths of Iraq or Somalia, generating instability that flows across borders and affects neighboring states.

Otherwise, the end of the Assad regime could herald the beginning of a move toward further rounds of violence and destruction. Moscow should realize that the rebels’ military momentum has been apparent for months, and that Russian procrastination has made things horrifically worse for the Syrian people.

The simple fact is that Russia and other backers of Damascus should move immediately from promoting one of their favorite terms, namely “dialogue” between the regime and the opposition, to “negotiations,” to signal that a post-Assad era is finally being discussed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 14, 2012, on page 7.




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