Syria: ‘The next 24 hours are crucial’

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By Barbara Slavin and Laura Rozen

The assassination Wednesday (July 18) of key members of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle marked a dramatic turning point in the Syrian rebellion, but the growing prospect of regime collapse seemed to offer no near-term reprieve from the bloodshed and chaos that have engulfed one of the Middle East’s most pivotal nations.

“The next 24 hours are crucial,” Aram Nerguizian, a military expert and Levant specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Al-Monitor after the deaths of Assad’s brother in law, defense minister and other key officials were announced by Syrian state television.

“Either the regime and the security services hang together and try to recalibrate from this … or we move on to next phase of the crisis: decay and truly sectarian strife with the potential for even deeper cantonization,” Nerguizian said.

“It could go either way at this point, either triggering rapid regime collapse or massive regime assaults,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who consults the Obama administration on the region, told Al Monitor by email Wednesday. “Either way I think, as I have for months, that Assad is doomed.  But his choices today will have a serious effect on the amount of bloodshed and pain Syrians will have to suffer.”

“Let’s hope that the momentum sustains itself and Assad flees,” Lynch said.  “We’re not there yet. …. Even if he goes there’s a lot of post-Assad issues for which nobody really prepared — the price of the fragmented opposition and power of armed groups.”

Indeed, Nerguizian last week predicted a “protracted civil war like in Lebanon or Algeria” even if Assad steps down. Tensions between majority Sunnis and Assad’s Alawite clan, as well as regional and economic inequities in Syria, ensure continuing bloodshed, he told an audience at CSIS.

The Syrian opposition remains divided, with no transitional government groomed to take Assad’s place as was the case in Libya.

The international community is also divided, with Russia and Iran clinging to the Assad regime despite its horrific crackdown on Syrians over the past 17 months. A UN mission whose main achievement has been to investigate some of the human rights atrocities that have taken place in the country is about to see its mandate expire unless a divided Security Council can agree on new terms for extending it. UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan called Wednesday for the UN Security Council to postpone a planned vote Wednesday on a new Syria resolution as diplomats consulted at the highest level on the unfolding situation.

In Washington, official reaction to developments was mixed. “There is real momentum against Assad, with increasing defections, and a strengthened and more united opposition that is operating across the country,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, adding “it’s time for the Syrian people and the international community to focus on what comes next.” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking Wednesday at the Pentagon with his British counterpart, had a more cautious take, saying events on the ground appeared to be “rapidly spinning out of control.” British Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond warned Assad that use of Syria’s substantial chemical weapons stockpile “would not be tolerated.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov said a “decisive battle” was underway in Damascus, but reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any UN resolution that would authorize international intervention in the country. “Adopting a resolution against this backdrop would amount to a direct support for the revolutionary movement,” Lavrov told reporters at a news conference in Moscow Wednesday, Reuters reported

Randa Slim, a Syria expert at the New America Foundation, noted that the Syrian regime “still has a lot of firepower.” While she called the semi-decapitation of the government the “beginning of the end of the regime,” she said that it was possible that both Iran and Hezbollah would intervene more forcefully to try to rescue Assad.

Iranian officials have indicated at times that they would accept a replacement for Assad, while asserting Iran has de factoveto power” over such a decision. However, an Iranian source, who spoke to Al-Monitor Wednesday on condition of anonymity, said that Iran as yet has “no Plan B in the current situation” because of Syria’s importance as a pro-Shiite force and conduit to Hezbollah in Lebanon. He argued that any substitute for Assad would embolden Al-Qaeda, which he said would threaten U.S. interests as well as those of Shiites in the region.

Other Iran watchers said events in Damascus may prod Iran’s leadership to recalculate how to best  maximize its influence as power shifts on the ground.

“The high profile assassinations in Syria today could have major implications for the Iranian government’s Syria policy,” Iranian-born analyst Meir Javedanfar told Al-Monitor by email Wednesday. “They could convince more senior regime officials to pressure [Supreme Leader] Khamenei to stop his support for Assad now, before it’s too late. Although the Iranian government is close to Assad, it won’t want to sink with his ship.”

“Ayatollah Khamenei is most likely to leave Assad the moment he realizes that his regime has no chance of survival,” Javedanfar continued. “After today, increasing number of Iranian government officials observing Syria could say that moment is now.”

(Photo: Journalists leave a road leading to the national security building after access to the area was blocked in Damascus July 18, 2012. Syria’s defence minister Daoud Rajha and President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat were killed in a Damascus suicide bomb attack carried out by a bodyguard on Wednesday, the most serious blow to Assad’s high command in the country’s 16-month-old rebellion. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri.)