I have not commented on the Syrian revolt for some time, because it has been unwinding basically as expected — a gradual erosion of support for the Assad regime among soliders and civilian, some major defections among his key supporters, expansion of the conflict to Damascus and Aleppo, and the slow slippage of more and more of Syria from the regime’s control.
The major bombing in Damascus this week, and Assad’s personal departure from the capital, suggest that Assad is no longer confident that he can fully control his capital. The Sunnis in the army and airforce are evidently dragging their feet and misaiming their arms when ordered to fire against civilians. The Alawites remain the core of Assad’s support, but will not hold out indefinitely against the rest of the nation. They are all too aware that the longer they resist and the more atrocities they commit, the less likely they will be left in peace when the regime changes.
Unfortunately, because the regime change looks to be messy and spontaneous, rather than orderly and planned, we can expect worse violence to come, as sectarian battles will arise. There is also risk that the weapons (including chemical weapons) of Assad’s army will fall into the hands of Hezbollah or other ‘unreliable’ groups.
To avoid the worst, the UN and NATO should begin a contingency plan, in close cooperation with Israel and the Arab League, for a response should the regime suddenly fall or Assad decide to flee. It would be helpful to have Turkish or other international troops available to stop sectarian fighting, secure important energy and weapons installations, and provide interim law enforcement.
What we know of urban guerilla type revolutions, which is what we are seeing in Syria, is that they can grind on for months. But then at some point a critical group within the regime, or the regime leader, realizes that they cannot win and seek to get out. The regime can then collapse with remarkable speed. There is no predicting exactly when that will be — it could be in a few months, or in a few days. But it is vital to be prepared so that Assad’s departure does not unleash worse suffering on the Syrian people.