Middle East

Fate of Assad's Syria still hangs in the balance

Syrian rebels stand on a picture of President Bashar al-Assad (20 August 2012)
Image caption Despite having made some significant advances, rebels say they lack the weaponry to launch a concerted assault on the bastions of regime power

The Russians finally admit publicly that a rebel victory is possible in Syria. They are even talking about an emergency evacuation of their nationals from the country.

The Nato chief says a regime collapse is approaching, and only a matter of time.

The writing is clearly on the wall.

After 21 months of intensifying struggle, and with the tide clearly coming in against the regime, even the most blinkered loyalist in Damascus can hardly imagine that victory against the rebels is possible.

But does all this mean the demise of Bashar al-Assad and the 42-year-old regime founded by his father is imminent?

If it remains a strictly military affair, the answer is no.

To win, the rebels have to conquer Damascus and dislodge Mr Assad from the seat of his power, which he has vowed to defend to the last breath.

Although the rebels have been closing in relentlessly on the capital, the real battle for the city has barely begun, and the hard inner core of the regime's power has yet to be fully engaged.

"We all know that the battle is not going to be easy, and that the regime will defend its existence by the most brutal means," the grassroots Local Coordination Committees organisation said in an unusual call to rebel fighters, activists and the public.

"However long it is before the battle of Damascus starts, and whatever challenges we may face, Syria and the Syrians have never been closer to victory than we are now."

It called on all concerned to "neutralise" mosques, churches and other places of worship during the looming battle, and for fighters to steer clear of heritage sites in order to spare them retribution by regime forces - a clear reference to what happened in Aleppo, where the ancient souks were largely destroyed after rebels began moving in in July.

Bastions of power

The rebels have made several waves of attacks on the capital since the two big cities were drawn into the fighting in July.

The regime has been unable to drive them out of many of the outlying suburbs, but succeeded in dislodging them from more central parts, and is now engaged in a ferocious campaign of heavy bombardment and counter-attacks to keep them out of the city centre.

Image caption The battle for Damascus could take months of fierce street-to-street fighting before the rebels reach their final goal

Rebel commanders complain that they lack the weaponry to launch a concerted assault on the bastions of regime power.

The battle proper may have to await a regrouping of ranks and the arrival of more sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-armour weaponry that the rebels hope will be forthcoming after the recognition they won at the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakesh this week.

Once it begins, it could take weeks, even months, of fierce street-to-street fighting before the rebels approach their final goal.

In Aleppo, where they control roughly half of Syria's biggest city, they have been unable to make much further advance despite several months of effort.

They also appear to have alienated much local opinion, especially after radical jihadi groups largely displaced moderate Islamist or mainstream factions of the Free Syrian Army.

So a protracted and bloody struggle could well lie ahead.

But the apparent inevitability of the denouement, now flagged up even by the Russians, might just lead to it being short-circuited by various possible scenarios.

Dramatic surprises

A cracking from within cannot be excluded, perhaps in the form of the Alawite leadership and military chiefs persuading President Assad and his inner circle that the game is up and it is time to get on the plane, for the sake of their community and the country at large.

Image caption So far Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused to pressure Mr Assad to step down

As pressure on the regime mounts, the possibility of dramatic surprises can also clearly not be excluded.

The shift in tone of Russian pronouncements could in itself have an effect on the morale of a regime, which has comforted itself by listening to endlessly supportive statements from Moscow.

If it has not given up hope altogether, Russia might conclude that to salvage any influence at all in the future Syria - and to thwart the radical jihadis whom it hates - it must play a proactive role in a peaceful transition and convince Mr Assad that it is time to go, long though Moscow has resisted such a step.

Such a move would be bound up with broader Russian strategic considerations, and might have to await a possible big-power understanding at a Putin-Obama summit after the US President's re-inauguration in January.

There is no guarantee that even Russian encouragement would succeed in persuading Mr Assad to step down, though at this stage even he can hardly regard his career prospects as bright.

It has taken nearly two years for Syria's conflict to move into its closing phases.

But how long that will last, how it will end, and whether it will be followed by stability or endless turmoil, is as unclear now as it has been all along.