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Alex Rowell

Is Assad finished?

What with Wednesday’s assassination of three senior members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle (a fourth, National Security chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, died of his wounds on Friday); the takeover of major Syrian border crossings to Turkey and Iraq by rebel units on Thursday; the accelerating pace of high-level army defections; and reports of members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect fleeing to their traditional coastal heartland; it’s perhaps unsurprising that analysts are wondering aloud whether the regime is in its final days. While experts contacted by NOW Lebanon varied in their confidence of a quick victory for the opposition, they also argued that what will follow the defeat of the regime may prove no less vexing, for Syrians and the international community alike.

Michael Weiss, Syria specialist at the London-based Henry Jackson Society and occasional NOW contributor, believes that recent developments rule out the possibility of the regime’s survival.  “Whatever else happens, the one safe bet is that Assad is finished,” he told NOW. “The fact that the rebels have gained control of the borders is huge. Turkey and Iraq, the way I think about them, are the [militant opposition] Free Syria Army’s barracks and weapons supplier, respectively. And another thing that people aren’t saying enough about is that the Turks have already created a de facto buffer zone along the border. Any helicopter that comes within three miles is chased away by Turkish F-16s.

“But the variables of how Assad will be finished are key. I’m not willing to make any long- or short-term prognostications at this point, simply because he could still use fighter jets, he could still deploy chemical weapons.”

Other commentators were somewhat more cautious. “I think it’s too soon to conclude that we’ve seen the end of the regime, but it seems very clear that the momentum has shifted in the opposition’s favor and the regime is now very much on the defensive,” said Steven Heydemann, senior advisor and Syria specialist at the United States Institute of Peace. “It has become almost impossible to imagine how Assad himself or the regime will recover from the setbacks of the past week.”

And Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes that the regime itself may outlive its current president. “Assad is finished, but I don’t know what ‘finished’ will look like or how long it will take; he might be finished, but the regime might not be. In terms of the end of the regime’s grip all over Syria, yes, that’s come to an end, but in terms of it existing on this planet, that could continue for a while over a smaller geographic area.”

Indeed, the week’s events have revived speculation that Assad may look to carve out an Alawite enclave in his co-religionists’ historical heartland along the Mediterranean coastline. A number of Alawites have reportedly already relocated to the so-called “Sahel” region.

But Heydemann is unconvinced. “I have to say that I don’t find that a very likely scenario, although I’m aware of indications that some preparations for that kind of move have been made. I have very significant reservations about the viability of that scenario, and it seems to me that even if key figures within the regime do decide to take a kind of last stand or try to establish some sort of semi-autonomous zone around Latakia, it’s going to prove almost impossible to sustain, and it strikes me as a very short-term strategy at best. My own feeling is that if the regime loses Damascus, it’s finished.”

Weiss was similarly skeptical, adding that there are large Sunni populations throughout the coastal region that would not readily submit to such an outcome.

Moreover, NOW has previously reported on myriad further economic and political impediments to such a move.

Elsewhere, the purported increased likelihood of a rebel victory has also sparked concerns about what are believed to be substantial quantities of chemical and biological weapons held by the regime. According to Charles P. Blair, senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, Syria’s “massive” arsenal includes “large stockpiles of deadly nerve agents, including VX, the most toxic of all chemical weapons,” in addition to blistering agents, mustard gas and “Scud missiles carrying warheads loaded with sarin nerve agent.” Tabler argued in print on Thursday that these weapons “could fall into the hands of Sunni extremists” as the regime’s control wanes.

However, for now at least, such scenarios are hypothetical. What, then, remains to be done for the rebels to clinch victory? “I believe it is critical for the opposition to continue activities that threaten the regime’s survival,” said Heydemann. “The only conditions that are likely to produce any sort of negotiated transition are those in which the regime is finally and decisively persuaded that it will not survive, and that the international supporters of the regime are persuaded that they need to back a process in order to prevent the country from entering a period of chaos and conflict.”

Weiss suggests a more direct approach. “The rebels need to storm the presidential palace, and they need to kill Assad and prove to the Syrian people that he’s dead. Then, they either need to kill or in some way incapacitate the remaining Baathist leadership.

“But in some ways, toppling the regime is the easy part. What happens the day after?”

  • Mark

    I don’t know if it is true but, writing in German paper Bild, longtime German war correspondent Jurgen Todenhofer accused the rebels of deliberately killing civilians and then presenting them as victims of the government. He described this massacre-marketing strategy as being among the most disgusting things that I have ever experienced in an armed conflict.

    July 27, 2012

  • Wardeh Fawaz

    @well?, majd of Dearborn Michigan understands that freedom of speech is guaranteed and protected in the US that's why he's not afraid to give us his usual lip service in support of the terrorist Iranian militia. That's also why he's smart enough not to do anything to support them in any other tangible form. Besides he's all too happy to stay in his safe home in the US while he watches others get killed and become displaced and homeless fida al sayyed.

    July 26, 2012

  • Ali Slik

    I still don't know why people put Syrian interests over Lebanese interests. Is Assad god? Is he divine? NO goddammit. He's human; and like every human he makes mistakes. He has to go... enough meddling in Lebanon. It's been too long that Lebanon should be a Syrian puppet.

    July 26, 2012

  • neural

    majd..... if Hizballah is called a terrorist group by the US. Here you are living in the US deffending Hizballah . Do you know as soon as you posted your messages on here The US got your IP number and your name? You now are listed as a terrorist and are being watched.. keep up the good work.. hahahahahhah

    July 25, 2012

  • Emile

    @majd.. dont be blinded with your rhetorics.. assad is leaving or toppled mitl shater.. although he is not .. why habib shartouni is asking to be pardonned , because he has no where to hide anymore .. his collaborators in the killing of Bashir will be all toppled.. i really pity the shia, they sided with palestinians after 75 by order of iran although the palestinians treated them like slaves and messed the south big time.. and now siding with the syrians again by order of iran.. unless they go back to the principles of moussa sadr.. they will surely be hated by most lebanese..

    July 25, 2012

  • Ali Fawaz

    majd you forgot that the ugliest arabs on earth rebuilt your beloved South after Hassan caused it's destruction then ran underground where it's safe. But that's neither here or there for you Hassan's foolish war did not affect you in Dearborn Michigan.

    July 24, 2012

  • Kudos

    I second Alex's comment about Jews a add to it the Christians. As everyone knows and Sayyed Hassan explained so clearly this is Muslim land and the Christians came to it as invaders, so when it comes to our issues no Jew nor a Christian need apply. Thank you. Haydar, Haydar, Haydar, Labayka ya Hassan!

    July 24, 2012

  • Hassan Abbas

    “The Syrian people and the friends of Syria will not allow regime change,” Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy chief of Iran's joint armed forces, was quoted as saying on the official website of the Revolutionary Guards." Iran's joint armed forces they include the so called hezb Allah don't they? The spirit of Mohammad Fawaz, our own prolific majd the hero of Dearborn Michigan will be buoyant by this news, but will he leave the safety of his US home and come join the fight, knowing him as I do I think not.

    July 24, 2012

  • alex

    We Arabs are so weak whether he stays or goes wont make a difference the dilemma is after he goes because everyone wants a piece of the pie...for future reference please find commentators that are not Jewish when it comes to Arab issues I don't see the Jews using Arabs to comment on their affairs?? At least give us that

    July 24, 2012

  • Emile

    dear majd.. dont worry we can afford the time, 35 years we waited for them to be kicked out from lebanon. i really dont understand your great impression about this regime.. have they ever fought israel, if yes, when and where?? 40 years and not one single bullets fired in golan heights..believe me had not been for the mutual benefits between iran and the syrian regime, shia will be the first to kick his rear end.. he killed the finest people of shia when they were occupying lebanon. fish albak and say long live bashar as much as you want now, because you will not have the chance to say it soon.. :)

    July 24, 2012

  • maher

    Dear majd, it is evident that you are a die-hard supporter of HA. Whether Assad is toppled tomorrow or after a year, he has lost his grip on power. Things will never be the same and will never revert to what they were. It would be interesting to know how majd justifies all other Arab revolutions vis-a-vis the Syrian uprising. If you are looking for propoganda then don't discuss issues take up lecturing. By the way both emile and majd have racist over-tones in their writings. One with his ugliest Arabs & the other about all Syrians being criminals. My friend these are petty criminals...take a look at your government & you'll find the pros...

    July 24, 2012

  • ali daoud

    dear Emile, believe me you will have to wait more than you can afford, and still you will not see Bashar toppled, if you think few thousand terrorists supported by the ugliest arabs on earth would topple Bashar then you are counting on the loosing horse.

    July 23, 2012

  • Emile

    when someone goes into hiding means he is finished.. who knows , he might have left syria already. finally they experienced what C4 can do. i if damascene started to flee surely means he is finished. Lebanese should be vigilant regarding the syrians fleeing to lebanon, robberies may go on the rise. already hardly any criminal act in lebanon does not involve a syrian.. lebanese should not sell land or homes to the wealthy ones with the money they stole from lebanon..(...)

    July 23, 2012

  • Khalil & Khaleel

    Yep he is finished.

    July 22, 2012