The Arab League in an unprecedented move suspended Syria from the regional organization earlier this month. The United States, Canada and the European Union have all levied new sanctions on Syria as well. While Assad may be circling the wagons, it now seems highly unlikely he will be able to resist internal and international opposition to his rule. Yet Syria’s future does not only depend on whether Assad departs the scene, but also on the manner by which he does so. This will determine whether the post-Assad transition in the country will be more akin to Tunisia — relatively peaceful — or to Iraq — horrifically violent.
There is no question that Assad’s days are numbered. The bare threads of his legitimacy are dwarfed by the deaths of the very people his regime purports to protect. It is estimated that on Tuesday of this week alone, 30 civilians were killed; the overall death toll has climbed well above 3,500, according to UN estimates. Leading opposition thinker Michel Kilo, a Syrian Christian, put it aptly when he said, “Syrians will never return to conditions prior to March 17.”
There has been far too much destruction and despair to simply negotiate a continuation of the existing regime. There are growing numbers of defections to what is loosely termed the Free Syrian Army, leading to more and more brazen attacks on the regime itself. An attack last week on the air force intelligence headquarters in the Harasta neighbourhood of Damascus was particularly dramatic, given the key role that agency plays in the country.
With Assad now seemingly on the clock, the nature of the opposition also appears to be transformed. Protests and demonstrations, while still occurring, are being overshadowed by audacious attacks by opposition fighters. One day last week more than two dozen Syrian soldiers were killed. In another incident several days ago, in Douma, an attack on a checkpoint by the Free Syrian Army is thought to have led to 22 deaths, according to Al Jazeera. This low-level conflict is a sign of what is to come. There are very few options being pursued to remove Assad except through violent overthrow. Most of the diplomatic manoeuvres by Turkey and the Arab League, as well as by the EU, now centre on censure and sanctions rather than mediation and de-escalation.
Syria, however, is not Libya. There is no Benghazi that can act as a base for the Syrian opposition. So far, there have been no high-level defections of senior military officers. And the opposition still appears to be largely fragmented. This means the growing violence could lead to each major population centre in Syria becoming a staging ground for the contestation of power by force. Imagine the destruction in Misurata in Libya replicated in six or seven cities.
What is even more disconcerting is that Syria is a diverse country ethnically and religiously, so there is the distinct possibility that any conflict could be engulfed by sectarian tensions. The internecine nature of Iraq’s conflict could very well be repeated if events spiral out of control. Imagine if an Alawite village were attacked and there was a massacre; there would assuredly be a counterattack on a neighbouring Sunni village. In many cases, villages in Syria are mixed, and this could lead to dire consequences.
This is the difficult situation facing Syria and the international community. Relieving the pressure on Assad would only further his ability to continue to commit widespread abuses. Yet, without leaving other avenues for his departure on the table besides force, the situation could deteriorate very quickly. Therefore, governments in the region in particular but also in the West, must ensure that aggressive mediation is still an option and that the humanitarian situation is prioritized above political preferences.
Assad does indeed need to leave his seat, as Erdogan said, but it should not be in a manner that sacrifices the future of Syria.