Syria’s beleaguered Bashar Al-Assad will have cause to regret this day. The Arab League meeting in Qatar called on the dictator to resign rapidly and offered him a safe passage out of the country. His response was to call in his new army chief of staff and order him to crush the rebels.
There can be little doubt that the regime is losing its grip on power. Following the assassination of four top officials who were spearheading the drive to stem the tide of popular protest and the armed insurrection, there has been further fighting in Damascus. Perhaps, more significantly, there is now more concentrated conflict in the port city of Aleppo, which had been considered a regime stronghold. As fighting in Syria’s major commercial hub enters its fifth day, the Free Syrian Army has announced that its operations there are intended to liberate the city.
Assad’s troops have trumpeted the fact that they have re-occupied two Damascus suburbs, seized by the rebels. However, this is almost certainly a hollow victory, because it is a repeat of earlier fighting in the capital, in which rebel forces have simply withdrawn in the face of the regime’s superior firepower. Yet again the re-taking of rebel-held areas was marked with the normal summary executions of anyone suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. This butchery, often carried out by the shabiha militiamen, following close on the heels of the army, is doing more than anything to turn Syrians against the regime.
Indeed, the disgust at this savagery continues to rise, even among ordinary citizens who fear for their country’s future, once Assad and his people are gone. The unofficial death toll in this 16-month conflict is now said to be approaching 20,000. There are many who believe that this figure is highly conservative.
The Arab League’s offer to Assad is probably the last chance that he had to escape with his life, unless the ever-supportive Russians have a plan to save him. However, the Kremlin is only interested in the dictator remaining in power. Once he is ousted, Assad will be of no further use to them. By his refusal to use his considerable leverage to bring the regime to heel, President Putin has burnt his bridges in the Middle East. Despite the geopolitical reality that few governments can be treated as pariahs for very long, it will nevertheless, be some time before Russian businessmen and Russian diplomats can expect a sympathetic hearing in the Arab world.
The Kremlin’s inept and corrupt handling of the economy and Russia’s almost total reliance on its oil and gas income will, at some point, find it in need of financial or political support from the Middle East, which is highly unlikely to be forthcoming.
And so the Assad regime stumbles on toward its demise and in so doing, launches its own Gotterdammerung, in which tragically, maybe thousands more Syrians will perish. The wounds this dying regime is inflicting on the country will not heal easily and the scars will be apparent for years to come. The Assad legacy will be contemptible.