Summary for the Standard
This was first published by London’s Evening Standard (second story on the page).
In important ways, the regime has been collapsing for a couple of months. The Free Syrian Army – hundreds of militias made up of defected soldiers and volunteers – has liberated rural territory in the north and centre of Syria and controls sections of Homs and other cities. A steady stream of defections, including such prominent figures as General Manaf Tlass, has swollen the opposition.
Significantly, the regime has lost its support base in Damascus and Aleppo, where the arrival of refugees from other cities, terrible economic conditions and news of the Houleh massacre have provoked a wave of strikes and demonstrations.
Battles have raged in the suburbs. Now Operation Damascus Volcano has entered the capital. It’s an impressive show of coordinated popular and armed resistance, met by helicopter gunships, artillery fire and roving bands of thugs. The escalation renders the deadlocked international management of the crisis entirely irrelevant.
Yesterday morning the FSA struck at the heart of the regime, killing key architects of the crackdown. This isn’t yet the end, but it’s a very definite tipping point. Everyone in Syria now realises the regime is falling. Reports of mass defections rapidly followed the attack on the security chiefs.
It’s likely, however, that the regime core will fight to the death. This prompts fears of massacres on a still worse scale. In 1982 the regime ended an uprising by killing ten to twenty thousand people in Hama. During this very different uprising its strategy remains the steady escalation of violence, despite all the evidence that the plan is backfiring.
The regime’s instrumentalisation of sectarianism means that communal violence is a real danger. There are already rumours of Alawi areas of Damascus fortifying, either to fight for the regime (whose leaders are Alawis) or to deter potential Sunni vengeance. The FSA and grassroots organisers will have to work very hard to squash sectarian provocations which could potentially spark conflict from Lebanon to Iraq.
Russia and Iran will dramatically lose influence in post-Asad Syria. It would be disastrous if they sought to cut their losses by reviving, with regime stalwarts, the French Mandate project of an Alawi state on Syria’s coastal strip. Not only would this deprive Syria of its access to the sea, it would require an ugly ethnic cleansing which could catalyse endless war. The coastal cities have Sunni majorities; even the mountain heartland is a patchwork of Alawi, Sunni, Christian and Ismaili villages.