Preparing for the Endgame

Syria's fate is being decided on the battlefield and not at the negotiating table. In some parts of the country, the post-Assad era has already begun. The Syrian opposition must now prepare itself to assume power and needs support from the international community, writes Kristin Helberg

By Kristin Helberg

It was not just the war in Syria that took a decisive turn last week; it was also the life of President Bashar al-Assad. Whereas just 10 days ago he still believed himself to be safe – the battles raged in distant Homs, while he and his henchmen were secure in downtown Damascus – now he must fear for his life. The rebel attack, which targeted a meeting of senior security staff and killed four of Assad's closest confidantes, dealt a serious blow to the Syrian leadership and left it shaken to the core.

Assad must now make a decision. Does he plan to fight on to the bitter end and risk sharing the same fate as Gaddafi? Or will the 46-year-old father of three board a plane to Russia or Iran at the last minute? One thing is certain: Assad's departure is the only chance to secure a swift end to the conflict. As long as he maintains the battle course and can wage that conflict from a secure location within the country, the war between the regime and the rebels will for the moment continue with dogged violence. Towns and city districts will be at the mercy of both government troops and opposition fighters, who will lose control and regain it in alternation. Heavy weapons face off guerrilla tactics, and as ever, it is the civilian population that is caught in the middle.

As the motivation of the opposition increases, that of the regime is gradually being eroded. Each "liberated" area – even if this liberation is just temporary – is making the Free Syrian Army more determined and Assad's soldiers more desperate. The regime cannot maintain control everywhere. In order to secure Damascus and the economic metropolis of Aleppo, it is having to pull troops out of other areas, which sometimes leaves easy pickings for the rebels in the north and the east of the country. One day after the suicide attack, the opposition gained control of individual border crossings to Iraq and Turkey.

The conflict is entering a decisive phase

The morale of the army is at rock bottom. Hundreds of soldiers are defecting; entire units are breaking away; high-ranking members of the military are seeking refuge abroad, taking their families with them; the military, one of the key pillars of the Syrian apparatus of power, is disintegrating. For Assad, this represents a further threat: that of a coup by army leaders. Faith in a victory is also receding within the regime itself, power figures could therefore allow the president to fall and switch allegiances to safeguard their own future. Who can Assad still trust?

The situation in Syria has changed since the bomb attack in Damascus, and Assad now has to decide which of the Arab world's former dictators he intends to copy: to stay in his country and fight to the bitter and possibly gruesome end (like Gaddafi in Libya) or to get on a plane and go into exile (like Ben Ali in Tunisia)

​​But Assad is not alone yet. He has the unwavering support of a close-knit circle of mainly Alawite officers, senior intelligence agency personnel and his extended family. Through their responsibility for the excessive violence of recent months, they have chained their destinies to that of the regime and its grip on power. For this staunch group of people, this conflict is a matter of life or death, meaning it is capable of anything.

In view of this escalation in Syria, the efforts of the international community appear naïve. Assad's life is in danger, and the European Union wants to "step up the pressure" with sanctions. The army is using helicopters to bombard residential areas, and UN observers are expected to hold out in their hotels for another 30 days. While opposition and regime talk of a "final battle", politicians from all over the world are calling for a halt to all weapons imports while mumbling about an "ordered handover of power". As desirable as a diplomatic solution is, it is not going to happen. The fate of Syria is being decided not at the negotiating table, but on the battlefield. There are three reasons for this: Bashar al-Assad, the opposition and the international community.

UN observers: silent extras in the Syrian conflict

Right from the outset, President Assad has focused on a military solution and knowingly drove his opponents into armed conflict. For months, moderate opposition leaders were ready to negotiate with representatives of the regime over a democratic transition of power. Their only condition was that violence against peaceful demonstrators should cease. But Assad allowed his troops to go on shooting. For 16 months, he has not halted the violence against civilians for a single day to give a negotiated solution a chance.

The various political opposition groups (the Syrian National Council in Istanbul, the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change in Damascus, the Kurdish National Council and other factions) all agree on one important point: a fresh democratic start cannot take place with Assad. They are willing to negotiate, but only about the handover of power. Assad, on the other hand, sees himself as Syria's saviour. He believes the majority of Syrians support him, that he must protect his country from terrorists, Islamists and foreign conspirators and that he cannot, therefore, shirk his responsibility. As far as he is concerned, to negotiate about his removal from power is out of the question. This being the case, he sees no viable basis whatsoever for talks between the regime and the opposition.

Powerless to act: because Russia and China block all attempts at resolutions in the Security Council, the UN is condemned to stand by and watch the carnage unfold in Syria

​​Meanwhile, the international community sits on the sidelines and looks on. When it comes to Syria, the UN is unable to act. The Security Council cannot even agree to threaten economic sanctions, because each and every move is blocked by veto powers Russia and China. As a result, it can do little more than issue appeals, which have thus far simply ricocheted off the Damascus regime armour and given Assad more time for his war against the rebels.

The UN has long lost all credibility in Syria. For three months now, the Annan plan has demanded a ceasefire, and although it has the support of all those involved, not one part of it has been implemented in three months. On the contrary, the violence continues to escalate with more than 100 people killed every day. And all the while, the 300 unarmed UN observers film the plumes of smoke over Homs and Damascus from their hotel windows or hurry from one massacre to the next to document pools of blood and the aftermath of grenade attacks.

Supporting the "right" forces

This is why most members of the opposition realized months ago that the Assad regime can only be conquered by force, and that they must battle out this conflict alone. This explains the growing number of "liberated" areas and deserters, the increasing militarization of the rebellion and the enhanced quality of the rebels' weaponry.

Officially the West is hesitant to arm the opposition, citing the argument that more weapons will only spell more violence. But let's be honest: weapons are finding their way into the country as it is. All that the international community can do now is support the "right" forces, the Syrian Army deserters, thereby restricting the influence of radical Islamists and international terrorist groups.

Despite all the uncertainty surrounding its members and the shortcomings in its organizational structure, the Free Syrian Army is currently the only group in a position to re-stabilize the country in the event of a regime overthrow. This is because its ranks have been swelled by most of the deserters from the Syrian army, who are experienced military staff and include more than 20 generals who fled to Turkey.

"Despite all the uncertainty surrounding its members and the shortcomings in its organizational structure, the Free Syrian Army is currently the only group in a position to re-stabilize the country in the event of a regime overthrow," writes Kristin Helberg

​​The battles in Damascus and Aleppo, the attack on Assad's security crisis team and the masses of deserting soldiers show that the Free Syrian Army is becoming more organized all the time, that it has support within the high echelons of power and the greater public backing. And even though isolated units are at pains to define themselves as Islamic, the commanders in Turkey say they are committed to Syria's religious and ethnic diversity.

Preventing acts of revenge

In some "liberated" regions, the post-Assad era has already begun. Here, the focus is on preventing revenge attacks, providing security and guaranteeing humanitarian provisions for the local populace. This is a huge challenge in view of the anger, pain and grief of hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

The opposition must pull together. The civilian and armed resistance must work together on the ground to restore an ordered, normal life and hold the country together. Water and power supplies have to function properly, only the state can legitimately use violence to enforce order, and there must be visible and tangible evidence that a political transition is taking place and that efforts to secure justice are being made. This is why Syria's opposition needs support from abroad.

The international community must wake up and concede its failure. It has failed for 16 months in Syria – politically, diplomatically, legally, militarily, even on a humanitarian level. The Syrians were alone in their fight against the dictatorship; they should not be left alone to cope with the reconstruction of their nation and in the process of re-establishing peace.

The "friends of Syria", those nations that have long distanced themselves from Assad and expressed solidarity with the opposition, should now prepare the various political factions and the deserters in the Free Syrian Army for the power takeover. Perhaps then, the international community can claw back at least some of the credibility it has lost in the eyes of the Syrian people.

Kristin Helberg

© 2012

Kristin Helberg worked as a freelance journalist in Damascus from 2001 to 2009.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/