Syria at the tipping point?
Recent developments have favoured the revolution in Syria even as the regime has escalated its ferocity and violence, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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From top: a vehicle turns to rubble at the Damascus district of Qaboun; the funeral procession of Marwan Refaai Nasser in Homs, Syria, Sunday
After the bombing of the headquarters of the Syrian National Security Office that killed at least four senior military and security officers leading the regime's crisis management cell, battles between the regular army and the revolutionary Free Syrian Army (FSA) broke out in the capital Damascus and in Aleppo, the country's second-largest city.
Army units loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad used field artillery and helicopters to bombard locations where the revolutionaries were concentrated and opposition strongholds in lower-class districts in both cities, causing the protesters to make a tactical withdrawal from some areas.
However, this did not stop advances in other areas, especially near the border in the north and east of the country. Syrian revolutionaries seized control of two border crossings between Syria and Iraq and three out of five border crossings between Syria and Turkey. Fierce battles took place when opposition fighters attempted, but failed, to take control of the single border crossing with Jordan.
The opposition said that many towns in the northeastern Kurdish region of Syria had fallen into the hands of the revolutionaries without any fighting as the central government's power continues to erode. The FSA said that its forces were now in control of most Aleppo districts and that the economic capital of the country could be liberated within days.
Meanwhile, defections from the ranks of the regular army have been continuing, enhancing the capacities of the FSA, which is composed of defectors from the regular army and civilian volunteers. Sources in the armed revolutionary brigades said that the FSA now possessed armour-piercing weapons and that portable anti-aircraft weapons were "on their way".
The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) described the battles that began last week in Damascus and Aleppo as "a critical step and foundation for the regime's demise". However, it also expected "a further round of bloodshed in Syria because the regime will not surrender easily."
The regime's military fourth division has participated extensively in recent battles in Damascus under the leadership of Maher Al-Assad, the president's younger brother, whom the opposition views as a primary advocate of the military crackdown and the most ferocious in using violence to suppress the protesters.
Observers say that the intervention of the fourth division in the capital indicates that the president's brother is now becoming more involved after the deaths of the minister of defence, the director of national security and the president's brother-in-law, all members of the regime's crisis management cell.
After the deaths of these men, there were reports that Moscow would be prepared to grant the Syrian president and his family political asylum if he stepped down and rumours that Al-Assad and his family had already fled the country.
Russia's Foreign Ministry denied the reports, with Israel confirming that Al-Assad was still in Damascus, where the armed forces remained loyal to him. Sources familiar with the Syrian leadership said there was no reason for Al-Assad to flee at this point, though there have been reports that some members of his family are in Russia, including Khaled Mohamed Makhlouf, a businessman who participates in political decision-making.
The escalating battles on the ground last week triggered a variety of Arab and international reactions, most notably European, Arab and Russian statements to the effect that moves may now be afoot behind the scenes to bring the end of the regime closer.
Statements by Russia's ambassador to Paris Alexander Orlov were perceived by some observers as indicating that an agreement could be in the offing that would resolve the crisis and would not guarantee that Al-Assad remained in power.
"It is difficult to imagine that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will remain in powerÒê¦ he will leave," Orlov told the French Le Parisien newspaper in an interview on Friday. "I think he understands that, but it must be organised in a civilised manner, like in the case of Yemen."
The Russian diplomat did not change his statement despite strong criticism by the Syrian leadership and attempts to distort his words. On Sunday, he made the same statement again even more clearly during an interview with Radio France International.
"Al-Assad's approval of the Geneva Agreement means that he agrees to leave," Orlov said, explaining that the Agreement "outlines the start of a process for the transition of the current president's powers to a transitional government that represents all political forces."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called on the Syrian opposition to organise in preparation to take power in the country. "The time has come to prepare for the transitional phase and beyond," Fabius said, adding that France hoped "that an interim Syrian government is formed quickly and is representative of all sectors of Syrian society."
He also supported efforts by the Arab League in this direction. After a meeting of the foreign ministers of the latter earlier this week in Qatar, the Arab states offered al-Assad safe passage out of the country if he stepped down and called on the Syrian opposition and FSA to hold consultations on a transitional government.
The Arab League also offered to give $100 million to care for Syrian refugees.
Syria's Foreign Ministry immediately rejected the proposals, describing them as "blatant interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state". It added that it was unfortunate that the League had "regressed to such an unethical level" in dealing with one of its founding members. The Arabs "instead of helping Syria are making the situation worse," it said.
"If a transitional government is formed to run the country, its tenure should not be longer than 18 months," said Haitham Manaa, chair of the opposition Coordination Committee of Forces for Democratic Change, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. "It should prepare for democratic elections that would establish a democratic state."
Manaa added that "if Al-Assad steps down or is removed, then all the figures of his regime should also go. The Syrian opposition rejects the compromise solutions that are on the table now. We want to prosecute regime figures who are responsible for killing Syrians or have participated in or planned or ordered these operations."
"We also want to prosecute figures from the al-Assad regime who have committed economic crimes."
Commenting on the deaths of a number of members of the old guard surrounding Al-Assad and who have participated in planning military operations, Manaa said that "it is clear that there are disputes among the regime's leaders, because there is no central security agency or military leaders for the entire military institution."
"Today, we are seeing discrepancies in the security apparatus that once appeared to be monolithic."
"I believe the Al-Assad regime now realises that there is a countdown to its ending, but will regime members involved in the killing leave the country to stem the bloodshed and end the violence, putting the country in the hands of honourable people accepted by both the regime and the opposition? This is the critical question we should ponder today."
Meanwhile, the international community has been scrambling to keep up with the developments in Syria, but it is too early to tell if Russia has begun to change its posture of supporting the Syrian regime. However, it does seem to have started to nuance its support for Al-Assad and other key players.
The opposition fears that the regime may become more ferocious as it loses control on the ground, believing that the government's admission that it possesses chemical weapons could be an implicit threat. However, it remains confident that the regime cannot remain in power forever and it is determined to use all possible means to overthrow it.
Developments are moving quickly in Syria, with the regime escalating the military crackdown against the revolution and the number of civilians killed in Damascus alone climbing to more than 100 every day.
This alone may indicate that Al-Assad will not agree to step down and hand over power as suggested by the Arab proposals, European hopes and Russian expectations.