Syria developments suggest Assad may go out quietly after all

The Syrian president still has a chance to achieve military gains before Russia and the West intervene with a political solution. In any case, his staying power hasn’t run its course.

HAARETZ: One after another the forecasts have been shattered. Since the March 2011 demonstrations broke out in Syria in the run-up to the civil war countless scenarios have been envisioned for President Bashar Assad. Those who predicted that the Assad regime would hold out for only a few months, as in other countries during the Arab Spring, were proved wrong.

Neither the Tunisian nor the Egyptian models came to pass. Assad wasn’t dragged through the streets or brought to trial. And the Libyan model of outside military intervention wasn’t followed amid the lack of a cohesive opposition and a lack of desire by the Western powers.

But after more than two years of a war of attrition between the regime and the opposition, three developments in the last two weeks may have changed things: the massacre in the city of Banias in western Syria, the big air strike attributed to Israel, and the visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

After the events in Banias this week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu accused Assad of ethnic cleansing in western Syria, with the intent of forming an enclave for Syria’s Alawite community. According to Davutoglu, the Syrian army has embarked on ethnic cleansing by murdering or uprooting Sunni communities all the way from the city of Homs to the coast. This is aimed at ensuring an Alawite majority in the area. Davutoglu called this Assad’s last resort after failing to suppress the revolution by all other means at his disposal.

This assessment is shared by Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. According to Karmon, Assad will strive to establish an Alawite state between Turkey and Lebanon, with its borders on the Mediterranean to the west and the cities of Aleppo and Homs to the east. He’ll also try to leave a corridor to Damascus.

Most Alawites are concentrated in this mountainous region, and more have been arriving there over the last two years, Karmon notes. And battles along Lebanon’s northeast border support his analysis, reflecting the desire of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah to maintain a corridor to Lebanon, especially to regions with a Shi’ite majority. But this scenario leaves Assad with only slim chances of retaining control of Damascus, Karmon says.

The establishment of an Alawite state would cause Syria to disintegrate into ministates, with Kurds seeking a state in the northeast and the Druze seeking one in the Syrian Golan, with a large Sunni country in between. Given the region’s geopolitical realities, the opposition’s lack of cohesiveness and Syria’s large Christian community, this is a very unlikely long-term solution.

According to Samir Aita, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique’s Arabic edition and a member of the Syrian Democratic Forum, an opposition group, Assad’s efforts focus on maximizing military gains before outside powers impose a solution.

“Assad fully understands that the Syrian arena has become an international one,” Aita told Haaretz. “The powers led by the United States and Russia don’t want this confrontation to spill over into neighboring countries, mainly Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, and they’ll take action to prevent this from happening.” According to Aita, the big attack attributed to Israel was a signal to both sides that if foreign intervention is desired, Israel will be part of it. This was an attempt to get both sides to show some flexibility.

Aita says Assad could look for a political solution based on the outline presented in Geneva last June – a vague formulation that could give him a golden opportunity. The plan leaves him in office for a stretch while a mutually acceptable government is established – a government that would have authority over the military and security apparatus.

“He remains president, but with no authority over the army and the government. The opposition will have to waive its demand for his immediate ouster as a condition for any future settlement, while enabling a functional government,” Aita says. “This is what will be hammered out at an international meeting following an agreement between Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow.” But the sides are bickering over who will take part in this meeting.

‘An Alawite state is suicidal for Assad’

So far the opposition has vehemently refused to let Assad remain in office. But based on their understanding that the United States will not intervene militarily, they are holding discussions. Another possibility – Assad remains in office until the 2014 presidential election – seems unlikely for two reasons. One it’s too far in the future, and two it will be very difficult to hold an election in a Syria in which the central government has lost control of many regions.

A senior opposition figure since the time of Hafez Assad rejects both scenarios. “An Alawite state is suicidal for Assad because it wouldn’t survive in these conditions,” he says. “The political solution won’t work either, since relinquishing control over the army is also tantamount to committing suicide.”

The opposition leader says Assad will go for broke as his only option. He will do this by using even more force against civilians and the opposition, while trying to highlight the opposition’s failures, especially the ascendancy of Salafi elements and Al-Qaida. By intensifying the fighting and allowing it to spill over into neighboring countries, Assad wants to force outside powers to intervene.

“Assad is trying to create an internal front against the opposition, combating the revolution from within by distributing resources and getting support from various political and religious circles while enacting reforms and engaging in dialogue,” the oppositon leader says. “At the same time, he is intensifying the use of artillery, planes and missiles against anyone who opposes him. Unfortunately, the opposition is helping him by remaining fragmented and by its inability to mobilize world opinion, allowing the Salafis and Al-Qaida to increase their strength.”

He adds that the regime’s response to the attack attributed to Israel was part of this campaign – describing Israel and the shadier members of the opposition as his opponents. He says this situation can go on for many months in the absence of a Western military intervention.

Such an intervention would revive a popular proposal over the last two years: Assad leaving Syria. Military successes by the opposition, with or without Western intervention, could get Assad to go. Last summer saw the departure of Assad’s mother for Dubai, sources say, following the explosion at the national security council headquarters that killed the defense minister and Assad’s brother-in-law, strongman Gen. Assef Shawkat.

This incident highlighted the opposition’s deep penetration into Assad’s circles. At the time, Dubai was mentioned as a possible exile venue for Assad and his family. Also mentioned were Venezuela, Russia and Iran. But this scenario like many others, has evaporated.