July 2012

A quick note about this. I would say that events on the ground may well have shortened that wall I last discussed considerably.

Neil MacFarquhar does a good job of asking, and at times answering, the big questions. It does seem to me that he puts too much emphasis on the bombing being in Damascus. A regime can survive for a long time with low-grade insurgent violence in the capital – it can lead to successful ethnic cleansing, as happened in Baghdad – but the idea that the inner circle – and not just the Sunni components – may be cracking is a threat.

My friend may think Assad has a year at least, but I think he may be operating under a few assumptions as to how much in control of the Alawi he is. The Alawi have really staked much on the Assads, but i think if it seemed worth while to them, if they felt vulnerable enough or if an alternative seemed alluring enough, they would abandon him. The idea shouldn’t be dismissed, at least, that Assad will fall far quicker than a year. What is to come after, though, may not make many here or there too happy.

It would seem that the elite defections are starting in earnest now in Syria. The Syrian ambassador to Iraq has resigned and defected. Fares’ defection, along with the earlier defection of Gen. Tlaf, plays into the narrative of the crumbling regime in the ways that we’ve seen before, for example in Libya. I tend to be in the camp of thinking that the writing is on the wall for Assad, but the question is, how long is that wall?

Are these two high-profile defections bellwethers for immanent collapse of the regime? I think, perhaps, not. Unlike Libya, you don’t have NATO adding pressure with military force. That sped up everything. Plus, despite what the mainstream media is saying about Tlas being a personal friend to Bashar and Fares being an important, senior diplomat, it may be that what we’re seeing here is a result of the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian revolt.

Tlas and Fares are Sunni, and the armed opposition is increasingly majority Sunni and radical. These defections show that the Sunni elite that has existed just outside the inner Alawi core is crumbling. That’s not good for Assad, but it doesn’t spell doom just yet. If anything, I would expect the lines to harden. Assad has no compunction using extreme violence and force to sustain his rule, and the core around him may well be prepared to go as far as necessary as a means of keeping the Sunni bogeyman at bay.

Then again, such a situation may be ripe for a palace coup, as Reva Bhalla and Kamran Bokhari have pointed out in Strafor (via Josh Landis’ site).

So, more crumbling at the edges, but the wall still stands. For how long? A friend with good insight says at least another year. Half the military and the entire diplomatic corps could defect in that time. Assad’s state may shrink before it falls.