“Turning point” has been used frequently to describe the evolution of Syria’s sixteen-month conflict. The term has come to refer to little more than a large-scale atrocity event, which, in spite of widespread moral outrage, fails to mobilize international action. Earlier this morning, however, the Syrian opposition may have found its turning point and, in doing so, paved a rocky, uncertain path towards the decline of Bashar al-Assad’s twelve-year-old regime.
Earlier today, an opposition bomb attack struck Syria’s national security building in Damascus, killing four top security officials, including Assad’s closest advisers on intelligence, military, and interior affairs. Fighting between Syrian security forces and various opposition factions, including the Free Syrian Army, has emerged in Damascus over the past week, striking at the foundation of Syrian regime stability. Damascus and Aleppo, in northwestern Syria, are generally described as strongholds of the Assad regime, due to the pervasive influence of the two cities’ commercially successful, elite patronage network of Alawite communities, a Shi’ite minority in Syria. As opposition forces have made inroads into Damascus, encouraging defections by prominent political, security, and military officials, Assad’s elite network has begun to retreat into traditional enclaves, attempting to insulate themselves from the regime’s slow, unstable demise.
In past years, particularly during Assad’s father’s brutal, extended 1982 crackdown on opposition forces and civilian populations in Hama, the Syrian regime has confronted existential threats to internal security with significant and indiscriminate force. While there are early indications of a counteroffensive, Syria’s security infrastructure following the Damascus attack is likely in disarray. Last week, before the emergence of an opposition insurgency in Damascus, the conflict appeared to have reached a stalemate; now, the opposition has the momentum, the fear factor, and, therefore, the operational upper-hand. Over the medium-term, the Syrian regime will probably encounter a wave of higher-level defections, which, as events in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia indicated, are the key indicators of regime fractionalization. Over the short-term, though, we will likely see an intensification of the conflict–and, therefore, of mass atrocities–as Christian Alawites attempt to consolidate security amidst chaos.
Many, including the Obama administration, have presented regime change as a necessary precondition for the mitigation of mass atrocities in Syria. Before the recent wave of mid-level defections, there was some indication that, in contrast to popular belief, a negotiated political transition would do the trick. After today’s attack, the regime change/mass atrocities dynamic looks less clear. Given their present momentum, a still-divided opposition movement is unlikely to negotiate a credible resolution to Syria’s crisis, and, in the absence of security guarantees for Assad, his inner circle, and Alawite elites, the regime has few incentives to negotiate. It’s not clear that, at any point in the crisis, military intervention would have prevented the international community from reaching this point; in all likelihood, third-party, external intervention would likely have hastened the militarization of Syria’s conflict. Both the Assad regime and opposition forces have proven capable of waging indiscriminate violence in urban, dense environments, and further militarization would only expand opportunities for mass atrocities.
Speaking frankly, there aren’t very many options left for international influence. If sanctions were effective in driving previous defections, any existing mechanisms for financial, commercial, and economic pressure have probably run their course. The UN Security Council has two days to decide on the future of Kofi Annan’s observer mission, and there are credible indications that the U.S. government is ready to cast it aside. While an extension of the observer mission would not have a direct impact on the evolution of the conflict, the space for international political action would maintain a weak link between the international community and the Assad regime, facilitating continued opportunities for multilateral engagement with the Syrian regime, however small. Asylum may encourage Assad to step aside, but, at this point, his elite network is sufficiently entrenched to undermine the potential effectiveness of the policy approach, its persistent moral dilemmas aside. The International Criminal Court’s crimes-against-humanity indictments may have a limited role to play, however, as an uncomfortably blunt and explicitly political alternative to higher-level defections.
For the time being, the nucleus of mass atrocities in Syria has shifted toward Damascus. Syria’s remaining security forces will do their utmost to ensure the continued stability of the regime’s shrinking enclave, at the extensive cost of human security.
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