The extraordinary spectacle of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad making a speech calling for the opposition fighters to give themselves up, start a “national dialogue” and fling themselves on his mercy, was a sad confirmation of his dangerous state of denial as his regime crumbles around him.
But Al Assad has easily enough military support to be very effective in the field, and his capability to fight on is bolstered by the large Alawite minority who see very little option other than to support Al Assad to the death, since they do not see any way they can simply join the largely Sunni and secular opposition which has made no effort to reach out to the Alawite community.
The opposition knows all too well of the massacres perpetrated by government forces, and its repeated attempts to frighten the Syrian population back into obedience. Its leaders know the brutality of the Al Assad system, which over the decades has been benign to those who were willing to work with it, but savage to those who chose to question it.
The opposition sense that they are about to start winning the war. The former Syrian National Council has been expanded to become the Syrian National Coalition, which has won recognition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people from most of the world, allowing active support. Many western countries are supplying goods and services if not arms, but the Saudis and others in the region are anxious to start giving the opposition arms, arguing that unless they do, religious extremists will dominate the fighting and take undue political reward wen the regime finally falls.
It is not clear how to stop the fighting, which would require a process by which both opposition and government forces see a reason to talk, and their leaders see a joint future in a new Syria. Without that sense of direction, it is obvious that the fighting could continue for a very long time, with a growing toll of people killed and maimed, and increasing destruction of the Syrian economy and infrastructure.
But any peaceful way forward is very uncertain. The starting point should be the UN Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, but he is stuck in the past, and is still using the June 2012 Geneva Declaration as the basis of a way forward. This plan calls for amendments to the constitution, the formation of a unity government, and holding presidential and parliamentary elections, but it does not insist that Al Assad leaves office.
The Geneva Declaration might have worked if the government had not been so brutal and if the opposition were not so confident. But they are in no mood to accept these ludicrously mild proposals. They want Al Assad to go, and they know that they are making gains every week. They already control large parts of the country, half of Aleppo, and have large numbers of armed forces in Damascus itself.
However, other forces are working out how to bypass the UN and its increasing irrelevance to the reality on the ground. For example, the British Foreign Office has called for a meeting this week to plan for the period after what it calls Al Assad’s “inevitable” departure. The meeting will include representatives of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) opposition group and other agencies, as well as experts on Syria experts, and specialists in post-conflict stabilisation.
This British-led gathering shows how many Western powers and secular Arabs are very concerned that if they do nothing to prepare for a transition to a new Syria, all sorts of regional and sectarian rivalries could arise.
Syria is too central to the Arab world to be allowed to drift into chaos. It is not like Somalia or Yemen which have been allowed to drift into failure with little sense of urgency to restore them. But any such failure in Syrian would be very destablising for Syria’s fragile neighbours Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.
This is why Saudi Arabia has been so concerned, as it pursues its worries about combating a Shiite sphere of influence. The Saudis have expanded their struggle with Iran for dominance in the Gulf to cover the Arab world, and see the Iranian influence with Al Assad’s regime as being part of the Iran’s strategy which has led it to seek growing influence in Iraq’s increasingly Shiite dominated politics. The Saudis are very anxious not to see the same thing happen in a future Syria.